WORKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
- Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (Cornell University Press, 1995).
- Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 1995).
- E.J. Dionne, Jr., They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
- Stanley B. Greenberg, Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority (Times Books, 1995).
- Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995).
- Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (The Free Press, 1995).
- Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Politics of Disappointment: American Elections, 1976-94 (Chatham House, 1995).
In the 1940 presidential election, pollster Samuel Lubell developed a simple formula for charting the Roosevelt vote. In each city he surveyed, Lubell later wrote, Roosevelt swept every neighborhood where the monthly rent was $45 or less, and was swept away in those neighborhoods where the rent exceeded $60.
Fifty-four years later, a stroll through downscale America-- more particularly, downscale white America--turned up no such Democratic groundswell. In the 1994 vote, as Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers showed in TAP's Fall 1995 issue (Who Deserted the Democrats in 1994?), the Democrats' support among college graduates and voters with rising incomes held steady at the level of their 1992 victory; but among white voters with less education, among voters whose income had been declining, their support collapsed.
The scrambling--in bad years, the reversal--of Lubell's calculus is by now a given of American politics: There is no longer a Democratic tilt within the white working class. At one level, this hardly qualifies as news; Kevin Phillips was proclaiming this transformation as far back as the late 1960s. What made the verdict of 1994 so devastating was that it was levied against an administration that had come to power precisely because it had courted white workers more successfully than any national Democratic campaign in years, and that had tried, albeit sporadically, to deliver for them once in office.
The key elements of Clintonism--the repudiation of cultural and race-specific liberalism, the promotion of universal rather than narrowly remedial government programs, the downsizing of government, and the renewal of public investment --were crafted with these lapsed or lapsing Democrats uppermost in mind. By the mid-1980s, as Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg noted in his research on Michigan's Macomb County, the Detroit suburb that has become emblematic of white flight from the Democrats, "these voters wondered why they weren't the central drama of the Democratic Party." The strategic object of the Clinton campaign --and to a lesser degree, the Clinton White House--was to convince them that they stood center stage once more.
By the evidence of the 1994 vote, though, the downscale whites felt they were still relegated to the wings. The government was still doing too much, and not enough. Welfare was still throwing money away, while programs to make health care more secure and college more affordable remained either small or unenacted. The rich were getting richer and the middle class was getting poorer (and NAFTA exacerbated both trends). The Democrats were just not there for downscale whites.
The Democratic failure during the first two years of the Clinton presidency wasn't simply a function of the difficulty of disengaging from a race-based liberalism whose supporters were a critical part of the Democratic coalition. Clintonians who came to power with the intent of making a multiracial working- and middle-class coalition "the central drama of the Democratic Party" found the bond market and the deficit, and global capital and declining wages hogging the spotlight. Even as it was decoupling itself from the policies of the 1960s, the administration was at a loss as to how to deliver in the 1990s. If the latest State of the Union address is any indication, the administration currently feels surer affirming the values of Middle America than defending its interests. The lesson of the books discussed in this essay is that it needs to do both.
But with the White House misplacing its populism, it should come as no surprise that angry white men are not only finding their cultural champions on the right; they're finding their economic champions there, too. In an age of layoffs galore and mergers amok, the loudest and hardest-hitting critics of corporate America aren't Democrats at all; they're Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips. Genuine fury at the corporate abandonment of American workers is hard to find on the Democratic side. What keeps economic populism going in America today, apparently, is Richard Nixon's rage at the old-money eastern elites, which Buchanan and Phillips are faithfully channeling.
The growing Democratic estrangement from the white working class has been a staple of political analysis and commentary at least as far back as 1970, when Phillips's The Emer ging Repub lican Majority and Rich ard Scammon and Ben Watten berg's The Real Majority first appeared. By the early 1990s, though, the genre had been taken over by such avowedly progressive commentators as E.J. Dionne, Jr., and Thomas B. Edsall, both of whom argued for a more populist economics and against at least some of the cultural and racial liberalism that they saw impeding any Demo cratic reconstruction of a bottom-up, multi-racial majority.
As the books under discussion here indicate, the output of the progressive revisionists has grown into a cottage industry, if not quite a distinct ideology. The histories focus on postwar liberal ism's subordination of the claims of class; the works of current analysis make those claims anew.
In The Populist Persuasion, American University historian and Tikkun book editor Michael Kazin charts the left-to-right odyssey of the populist style in American politics from the 1890s through the 1990s. The style--extolling the virtues of workers and their sometimes provincial cultures against the decadence of nonproducers and their sometimes cosmopolitan cultures--has proved indispensable to the American left, Kazin argues. "It is only when leftists and liberals themselves talked in populist ways," he contends, ". . . that they were able to lend their politics a majoritarian cast and helped markedly to improve the common welfare."
During its mo ments of relative success, Kazin asserts, the left has also accommodated itself to all manner of traditional cultures. The populists of 1892 avoided a Protes tant-Catholic split by declining to take positions on women's suffrage and prohibition; the Congress of Indus trial Organizations (CIO) repeatedly sought to cloak itself with the sanctifications of the Catholic Church. (The invocations and benedictions at CIO conventions, he notes, were almost invariably delivered by priests and bishops.)
By virtue of his emphasis on the need for a populist vocabulary, Kazin at times almost seems to be arguing that the American left has been smashed on the reefs of insufficiently popular symbolism. Political crises are cast as linguistic ones: Debsian socialists were trapped in a "linguistic bind" between an alienating Marxist argot and a more comprehensible tongue that was indistinguishable from the populists'; the CIO by the late 1940s was facing "a linguistic dilemma." In fact, as Kazin acknowledges elsewhere, the binds and dilemmas of the socialists and the CIO resulted from shifting political currents; there was no populist vocabulary that could have reversed the CIO's organizing setbacks of 1946, the failure of that year's GMstrike, or labor's growing estrangement from those sectors of the Catholic working class that gave credence to Joseph McCarthy.
But Kazin is surely right to note that after the CIO, the majority of postwar liberals--from "vital centrists" to New Leftists--shunned the populist style and, more fundamentally, grew disdainful of the white working class. For the generation of social scientists who helped define the liberal mainstream of the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter above all, the rise of postwar right-wing populism--that is, McCarthyism--served to discredit the entirety of American populism. The standard-bearer of 1950s liberalism, Adlai Stevenson, was really a premature neoliberal, unenthused by national health and the rest of Truman's Fair Deal, and distinctly cool to unions (not to mention cold on civil rights). And while the 1960s New Leftists rejected virtually all of the 1950s liberal consensus, they nonetheless felt just as alienated from and even more contemptuous of the beliefs and traditionalist ethnic subcultures of the white working class than the Stevensons and Hofstadters had. The New Left might have empathized with the CIO's militance, but it couldn't comprehend the CIO's strategic reliance on the church.
The neoliberals of the 1970s and 1980s were just as distanced from the working-class perspective as 1950s liberals and 1960s New Leftists had been. In effect, every wing of American liberalism granted the right a virtual monopoly on invocations of the value and dignity of work and workers. More recently, as income stagnation has settled over the land, the populist style has reappeared, fleetingly, on the left. Jesse Jackson uses it brilliantly, Kazin notes, but often in the service of causes, such as affirmative action and welfare, that divide working America rather than unite it. It was a steady drumbeat in Clinton's presidential campaign, if only an intermittent one after the election. And since Kazin's book has appeared, one of the precious few virtuosos of left-wing populism, the Mine Workers' Richard Trumka, has become Secretary-Treasurer of the new model AFL-CIO. Under Trumka's leadership, the UMW managed to rebuild a culture of militant unionism among the very sorts of folks who elsewhere were galloping rightward; it offered a left-wing version, as UMW Communications Director Jim Grossfeld put it, of "one-stop shopping for angry white men."
But Trumka remains an exceptional figure in contemporary liberalism. Since George Wallace, angry white men have done their shopping on the right.
Wallace's epochal achievement, Lee Atwater once noted, was to invent an entirely new elite for American populist demonology. Before Wallace, the primary objects of populist ire were the wealthy, particularly the wealthy who were far from the process of production: bankers, speculators, heirs to great fortunes. Wallace conjured up a new governing class, just as intrusive, just as far removed from the world of small business and the production worker, and every bit as effete as their wealthy predecessors. They were the "communists, socialists, beatniks, and atheists" inside the government; the "bearded Washington bureaucrats who can't even park a bicycle straight." At times, the two elites were merged into a single stream of vilification: One of his hapless gubernatorial opponents was supported, Wallace alleged, by a "spotted alliance" of blacks and "sissy britches from Harvard who spend most of their time in a country club drinking tea with their finger stuck up." To read the transcripts of Wallace's rallies is to see that a generation of Republican speechwriters have been doing pale knockoffs of his material ("effete snobs," "Harvard boutique").
Part of the considerable charm of Dan Carter's biography of Wallace is his ability to convey the mood of suppressed violence that Wallace brought to the podium when he was really on. "Many of his listeners," Carter writes of Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign, "responded with the wary thrill of middle- class southern girls drawn to, and yet terrified by, the ducktailed, T-shirt-wearing macho rednecks who ambled down the hallways of their high school." Pat Buchanan may be a Wallace for the 1990s--a champion of white workers and small businessmen against global corporations and liberal elites--but for all his pugnaciousness, Buchanan cannot approach Wallace's ability to give voice to his supporters' rage, to become the avenging angel of an entire subculture. Compare Buchanan's attack on Steve Forbes and the "boys down at the yacht club" to Wallace's wild riff against "Huntley and Chinkley and Walter Contrite." The first is your standard Populism 101; the second translates the inchoate fury of a collective subconscious into a weird folk poetry. (For anyone doing a study of Fisticuffs and the Populist Right: Wallace and his brothers and Buchanan and his brothers all spent the better part of their adolescence boxing at their respective fathers' insistence, though Buchanan brawled socially while Wallace saved it for the ring--and the soapbox.)
Wallace not only had white rage on tap; he had it on staff. His infamous vow at his first inaugural as Alabama governor in 1963--"Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"--was penned by Klan leader Asa Carter, who, when not busy writing for Wallace, was leading his Klavern in attacks on such notorious radicals as Nat King Cole. Carter offers a stunning depiction of the lumpen netherworld into which Wallace would descend when in need of a vicious line or a vicious cop. He also unearths new material on the Nixon administration's investigation of Wallace's brother Gerald, and how its decision not to file charges coincided with Wallace's deci sion to wage his 1972 presidential campaign within the Democratic Party rather than draw off votes from Nixon that November.
Most importantly, Carter discovers in Wallace's career the portents of realignments yet to come. In his 1968 campaign, Wallace relied on Billy James Hargis's Christian Anti-Com munist Crusade to build both a national network of coordinators and a direct-mail fundraising base, much as a later generation of Republicans would use the Christian right. And in 1964, Carter documents, Wallace was already inclined to lead the white South into Republican ranks, quietly informing GOP presidential nominee-to-be Barry Goldwater that he was eager to serve as his vice-presidential running mate. (Extremism in the pursuit of marginality apparently had its limits; Goldwater declined the offer.)
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Samuel Lubell, still walking through swing precincts, found the largest concentration of northern Wallaceites in those white neighborhoods that abutted black ones. In 1972, Wallace was the only Democratic presidential candidate to campaign against integrational school busing. In a state like Michigan, where a court had just ordered cross-district busing from Detroit into its almost entirely white suburbs, Wallace's was a hugely popular position (and one shared by most local liberal office holders, such as Dearborn's John Dingell). He won 51 percent in Michigan's Democratic primary, the same day that his shooting in Maryland effectively ended his national political career. That fall, in his contest against George McGovern, Richard Nixon took Wallace's two constituencies-- southern whites and northern Catholics--and moved them into the Republican column.
In a sense, as Wilson Carey McWilliams notes in The Politics of Disappointment, his collection of elegant postelection essays, the scrambling of the Demo cratic base marked a perverse kind of Democratic triumph. "[T]he New Deal strategy," McWilliams wrote after Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, "is ex hausted because it has succeeded: the groups the New Deal courted and cultivated have been won. The periphery of the New Deal coalition [progressives, blacks, and Jews] has become the heart of the Democratic Party, and the historic Demo cratic Party--Northern Catholics and Southern whites--has been moved to the periphery . . . . The Democrats need a new strategy."
McWilliams is right: Under neath the party of Franklin Roosevelt was the party of John Nance Garner and Al Smith, the ethno-cultural and not-all-that-liberal historic Democratic Party. And yet, the allegiance of Catholics and southerners to Roosevelt's party wasn't only ethno-cultural. Roosevelt far outpolled Smith in Catholic America; and in places like western Pennsylvania, the CIO politicized Catholic steel and mine towns where in earlier years the Democrats had barely been able to set up shop. Similarly, the intensity of southern white Democratic support was greater in the time of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Works Progress Administration than in earlier years. The public investment and universal social programs cooked up by New Deal bureaucrats greatly strengthen ed the Democrats not just among ideological liberals, but in the dankest backwaters of social traditionalism, not to mention white racism.
When the specter of court-ordered busing loomed over Michigan in 1971, it was Macomb County, just across the line from Detroit, that led the resistance. Just a decade earlier, Macomb had been the most Democratic suburban county in the nation, giving John Kennedy 63 percent of its vote in 1960 and Lyndon Johnson 74 percent four years later. But Macomb gave Wallace 66 percent of the vote in the 1972 Democratic primary; and by 1984, Ronald Reagan took 67 percent of Macomb's vote over Walter Mondale. Short ly thereafter, pollster Stan Green berg began traveling to Macomb to conduct focus groups there. What he found there over the next seven years, and what he concluded from his findings, pushed the Democrats in general and Bill Clinton in particular toward a reworking of the party's positions on race and class during the 1992 campaign.
By the time Greenberg got to Macomb, he found a county that defined virtually all social reality in terms of race. A nice neighborhood meant a neighborhood without blacks; being middle class meant not being black; almost all the participants in his focus groups, Greenberg writes, "perceived the special status of blacks as a serious obstacle to their personal advancement." These were Reagan Democrats, not Republicans; they were no fans of corporations or the market. But the economic programs of the Democrats were largely beside the point. The Demo crats had become the party of black people, the party of Detroit.
The turning point had been the war on poverty and other 1960s urban and race-oriented programs--the Great Society, excluding Medicare, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. "Johnson's bold initiatives," writes Greenberg, "ended up changing the Democrats' bottom-up vision, making it into something constricted and racial. Johnson's expansive moral formula rallied the country at a time of crisis, but as a political formula it could not embrace the middle class. This attempt at renewal crashed in 1968." In that year, Greenberg notes, only 17 percent of whites thought the War on Poverty was doing a good job.
Actually, the Macomb whites and their forebears had been regularly deserting the Democrats over racial issues decades before the Great Society ever took shape--only they hadn't made the move from Detroit to Macomb yet. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the white working class of Detroit was one of the marvels of American politics. More than any other Amer ican metropolis, Detroit was home to both of McWilliams's key Demo cratic constituencies, Catholics and (transplanted) southern whites. They helped create a city that was the base for the most militant and effective union in the nation--and one of the most substantial Klan operations as well. White Detroit voted overwhelmingly for UAW-supported Democratic liberals for state and national office. And the very same voters rejected virtually every UAW-backed Demo cratic liberal for municipal office (to the point where the Detroit UAW finally took a walk on a number of local liberals). The difference was that the national and state candidates routinely ignored racially charged issues, while the municipal liberals typically campaigned for more and better public housing and a less racist and less brutal police force.
What Greenberg found in Macomb, then, were white Detroit ers who had toted their politics across the county line; they hadn't changed. What had changed were the politics of state and national Democrats: Begin ning in the 1960s, they championed many of the same policies that had doomed Detroit's liberals, with the same electoral consequences.
Throughout the writing of those progressive critics who assert that Democratic doctrine went off the track during the Johnson years, there lurks-- implicitly in Edsall, explicitly in Greenberg, screamingly in Michael Lind--a desire to rewind the clock to the fateful years of 1964-65 and steer the Great Society away from the political debacle of its emphasis on the poor and nonwhites toward a more politically sustainable universal program. What exactly, or even approximately, that program should have been is almost never elaborated, however. One of the many virtues of Kevin Boyle's brilliant and important history, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, is that it provides a clear picture of the road not taken.
For Walter Reuther and his social democratic lieutenants, Lyndon Johnson's move toward the left was the opportunity they'd been anticipating for two decades. As Boyle meticulously documents, the Reutherites had argued at every opportunity (i.e., every shift to a wartime economy or election of a new Democratic president) for an expanded welfare state, a national incomes policy, joint management-labor-government planning of production in key industries, the conversion of the American economy along the lines of Swedish social democracy, or at least German social corporatism. And at every turn, they had been rebuffed. They settled, reluctantly, for winning a privatized welfare state and incomes policy at the bargaining table. Prodded by their black members, and over the objections of their southern white locals, they also provided crucial support to the early civil rights movement, bankrolled the NAACP and the march on Washington, and led the efforts to diminish the power of the Dixiecrats who still governed Capitol Hill in the early 1960s.
But the Reutherites understood--perhaps more programatically than politically--that a narrow-gauge war on poverty wouldn't work. "You can't compartmentalize the problem and say, `We will just talk about this little piece,'" Reuther told a congressional committee in 1964. An effective poverty war, he continued, would necessarily entail the democratic control of investment and democratic planning for production. Otherwise, ran the UAW critique, the war would split the working class: "It redistributed wealth not from the wealthy to the working class," Boyle summarizes the position, "but rather from the middle and working classes to the poor." The emphasis on inner-city poverty, UAW research director Nat Weinberg noted, would mean bypassing the considerable pockets of nonminority poverty in suburban, small-town, and rural America. If full-bore democratic "planning" was implausibly radical, at least full employment was thinkable.
An explicitly class-based alternative to the Great Society did exist, then. And while it didn't exactly die for lack of a second --the UAW's proposal was complemented by other programs from social democrats such as A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and their allies in other unions--it languished at the margins of liberalism, never winning a serious hearing from the Johnson White House. A universalist Great Society entailed too great a restructuring of economic pow er; its only powerful champions were progressive unions, and it probably would have required a northern Euro pean level of unionization to muster sufficient support to enact it. Then as now, the class-based liberalism for which the progressive revisionists pine required an organized class base.
By the time Bill Clinton began campaigning in Macomb in early 1992, he was well on his way to mastering the progressive revisionist two-step. On the one hand, he would call for an end to welfare as we know it, support the death penalty, and denounce Sister Souljah (a stratagem that Greenberg in particular urged upon him); on the other, he called for a working-class tax cut, for national health insurance and, late in the campaign, for a semi-managed, semi-free trade policy that paid at least some heed to worker rights.
It was part Democratic Leadership Council, part Economic Policy Institute, and all Greenberg. The two-step worked--sort of. In 1988, George Bush had defeated Michael Dukakis by 63,000 votes in Macomb; his 1992 margin over Clinton was just 17,000. Nonetheless, Clinton's performance among downscale whites was distinctly sub-Rooseveltian. Nationally, as pollster Ruy Teixeira has shown, whites earning $15,000 to $30,000 a year gave Clinton just 40 percent of their vote; indeed, Teixeira demonstrates, the greater the voter's decline in wages, the greater the likelihood he'd vote for Ross Perot (a foretelling of the Democrats' collapse among downscale whites two years later). Still, as Greenberg contended at that time and again in Middle Class Dreams, the possibility that Clinton could build a bottom-up multiracial majority, joining Perot's supporters to his own, was--and remains--a real one.
Perhaps even more than Greenberg, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., can take credit for formulating the clearest statement of the de-racialized progressivism that infused the 1992 Clinton campaign. Why Americans Hate Politics, Dionne's 1991 argument in favor of a renewed, slightly social democratic vital center, provided the analytic underpinning for Clinton's 1992 campaign.
Dionne's new volume, They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era, a surprisingly up beat assessment of the Demo crats' and progressives' prospects, begins with a postmortem on Clinton's program, and moves on to a devastating dissection of Gingrichism. It's the Gingrich part, not the Clinton, that's responsible for the upbeat outlook; the current period in Amer ican history is one in which partisans take hope chiefly from the performance of their adversaries.
The autopsy Dionne conducts on Clinton's program adduces all the usual suspects--the budgetary constraints, the administration's flight from populism both left (managed trade and campaign finance reform) and right (the middle-class tax cut and welfare reform)--but places its main emphasis, rightly, on the party's internal divisions, chiefly as they impacted the fight for national health insurance. Dionne clearly agrees with William Kristol's assessment (which appeared in his famous memo advising Republicans to oppose health insurance flat out) that enactment of the measure would "revive the reputation of . . . the Democrats as the generous protector of middle-class interests."
What Kristol saw clear ly, though, various Demo cratic members of Congress saw not at all. Trolling for insurance in dustry or small-business campaign donations, fearing a public backlash, they turned against Clinton's proposal. In fact, on some crucial questions, the backlash never came: Despite the onslaught from organizations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the public always supported funding the program through employer mandates. But the intensity of opposition like the NFIB's blew away the largely disorganized backing for the Clinton proposal.
On their most critical proposal in a generation, the Democrats discovered they had no means to gather support. "The only thing the Democratic Party needs," one White House adviser moaned to Dionne as the bill was going down, "is a Party." Not only didn't the Democrats have a party, they didn't have the kind of functional equivalent they had enjoyed the last time they brought major proposals before the nation. In the years since the 1960s, they had seen the labor movement shrink by more than half, and more and more districts drawn in regions where labor was a negligible presence. They had seen the demise of such legislative giants as Lyndon Johnson and Phil Burton, who frequently controlled campaign money and committee assignments and the flow of legislation to the point where their colleagues felt obliged to vote for their priorities. (Today's Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt, is acknowledged to be a great listener; Johnson and Burton were better known as great intimidators. The difference isn't simply characterological: Johnson and Burton reigned at a time when power--that is, legislative control and access to campaign funding--was more centralized.) The ideological recentering of the Democrats had returned them to power, but it would take more institutional cohesion than they could muster for them to deliver on their promises.
And yet, just when every last political scientist in America had despaired of seeing that cohesion in his or her lifetime, Newt Gingrich demonstrated that with enough money, ideology, foot soldiers, and freshman legislators, a coherent party could be resurrected. It is Gingrich's ascent that Dionne believes will return the Democrats to first principles. "For two decades," he writes, "Progressives have been timid in defending their project, and distracted by cultural politics. The Gingrich Revolution gives them no choice but to battle to preserve Progressivism's achievements and renew its program."
In a brilliant discussion of the Republican revolution, Dionne sees Gingrich as a latter-day Mark Hanna, the political boss behind the McKinley campaign, who in 1896 transformed the Republicans into the party of industrial America, relegating William Jennings Bryan's Democrats to the agrarian hinterlands of the South and West. In a like manner, Gingrich wants to align today's Republicans with the market forces pushing the economy into a globalized, information age. "Beneath the high-tech jargon lies a sophisticated strategy that seeks to transform the Republican Party into the advance guard of the economy, and leave the Democrats to defend the `obsolete' sectors." Industrial transformation, of course, is not the same thing as successful social transformation. The problem with the Gingrich program, Dionne asserts, is that "it has been tried before [that is, from 1896 to 1932] and found wanting." Now as then, the public will turn to government to seek relief from the social dislocations of this economic change.
Whether government will be up to the challenge is another matter. "Much as local governments saw their influence crumble in the 1880s and 1890s," he writes, "so now do national leaders feel constrained and, in some ways, helpless" before a transnational financial and industrial order. For the popular will and popular interests to reassert themselves, Dionne argues, government must expand to the scale of the economy. In the 1930s, that meant going national. In the 1990s, nations that wish "to maintain democratic influence on the economy . . . [must] reach agreements among themselves." The model for such an agreement, Dionne contends, is the social charter of the European Union (EU).
Throughout this provocative book, as in much of his writing, Dionne admirably attempts to formulate progressive policy in a way that can win broad support across the Democratic spectrum. But on this last suggestion, which is nothing less than his sine qua non for maintaining effective democracy, I'm not sure any formulation can unify the Demo crats. After all, the proposal, made by Richard Gephardt and supported by a number of unions, that the U.S. enter into a trade arrangement with the EU, has found no takers in the administration or within the Democratic wing of business. There is nothing close to consensus in the party on the necessity, or even the desirability, of a global mixed economy. The Democrats' dilemma, even after they've repositioned themselves to become more acceptable on cultural and racial matters, isn't just that they have no institutional center. It is also that they are torn, as the Republicans are not, by class differences that have been exacerbated by the economic and political transformations of recent decades. It is one thing to be the party of Averill Harriman and Walter Reuther in a time of shared prosperity; quite another to be the party of Robert Rubin and Richard Trumka at a time of soaring profits due in part to wage decline.
To say that E.J. Dionne and Michael Lind both advocated a liberalism with a diminished emphasis on race and an increased emphasis on class is to state the truth and obscure a world of difference. Dionne chooses to write more or less within the confines of actual existing politics. Lind, by contrast, means to blow up the whole damn thing.
In Lind, the progressive revisionist two-step has found its most zealous performer. There are many who share Lind's intense antipathy to affirmative action and racial preferences, but they are all well to his right on economics. There are many-- well, someshare Lind's militant advocacy of working-class interests and social market capitalism, but they tend to be well to his left on cultural politics. And to stake his terrain, he has written not just a political tract, but an entire counter-history and counter-mythology of America, and just when you think he's done, he appends a counter-pantheon of American heroes. It's immensely learned, overdone, occasionally wrong, and at times a little loopy; the overall effect is like being cornered in a bar and harangued by a MacArthur fellow who's had too much to drink.
As Lind tells it, the U.S. has gone through three distinct incarnations: Anglo-America, from 1789 to 1861; Euro-America, which lasted from 1875 to 1957; and Multicultural America, which commenced with the end of the second Reconstruction in 1972 and exists to this day. Euro-America perpetuated Anglo-America's subordination of non-whites; but as a consequence of the New Deal, it was characterized by an unprecedented prosperity among white workers. That prosperity--for white workers and nonwhites, too--has eroded badly in recent decades; Multicultural America, he asserts, is characterized by a "proliferation of racial preferences and decline in average wages and benefits--both in the interests of the white overclass."
Lind's assertion that an economic war has been waged by the American elite on the American masses is plainly accurate; the busting of unions, the destruction of manufacturing, and the erosion of wages and benefits were the result not of blind market forces but of policies undertaken on a scale unseen in any other industrialized nation. He is equally right to assert--with Dionne, Greenberg, McWilliams et al.--that racial preferences have divided American workers, eroded class solidarity, and weakened support for government programs and government itself. But to flirt, as he occasionally does, with the suggestion that the overclass cooked up this affirmative action thing as a way to shore up its offensive is a bit much. He does document how Richard Nixon came up with racial set-asides on construction sites in part to create political divisions, but we're not talking overclass when we're talking Nixon. One can easily imagine the one-sided class war of the past two decades proceeding unimpeded if affirmative action had never been devised. On the other hand, Lind is on surer ground when he notes the effect of open immigration on falling wages (a glaringly obvious fact in my own hometown, Los Angeles), and on surer ground still when he notes that it was only during the one period in American history when immigration was almost shut off--1923 through 1965--that industrial workers were able to organize themselves.
Ultimately, Lind is attacking both the cause and the consequence of American exceptionalism. The American left has long struggled with what it would term an underdeveloped level of working-class consciousness and organization, due in large part to the ethnic and racial divisions within that class. Lind's solution is to end those divisions. With enough miscegenation, we can become a little more like a European nation--one people indivisible by race, hence, divisible by class. In fact, the example of Hawaii suggests he's on to something--our most racially mixed state is also our only state with universal health insurance. Correspondingly, the cultural pluralism of the mainland leaves Lind utterly cold. He sees ethnic enclaves chiefly as impediments to a broader solidarity; the fact that the Germans of Milwaukee, the Jews of the Lower East Side, and the Salvadorans of downtown Los Angeles have at different times espoused an ethnically specific but militant class politics has not made it onto his radar screen.
Lind's take on affirmative action is equally without nuance. He follows (as do most of the writers discussed here) in the footsteps of William Julius Wilson in noting that affirmative action has done little to nothing for the nonwhite poor while eroding white support for government generally. But Lind conveys no sense of the terribly constricted choices presented to civil rights activists 30 years ago; that in the absence of a universal economic program along Reutherian lines, their choice was between racial preferences or nothing at all. (This is the unforgiving prism through which he views onetime CORE president James Farmer, whom he designates the father of the racial set-aside. But like most civil rights leaders of his generation, Farmer displayed an on-again, off-again seminationalism that was all mixed up with a social democratic universalism with which he felt far more comfortable.) Lind shows no sense that affirmative action may be politically problematic while at the same time helping deserving people who otherwise would never have gotten that help. And he conveys no sense that until the advent of universalist policies, some affirmative action may be the only way to significantly integrate particular campuses and corporations. Lind's America may be a place of interracial mating; but in that sure-to-be lengthy interval between the repeal of racially based admission policies and the advent of effective social integration, it's not going to be a place of much interracial meeting.
Even as Lind is racial liberalism's most avid critic among the progressive revisionists, so is he, among the writers considered here, social democracy's most enthusiastic defender. He supports imposing social tariffs on imports from low-wage nations and nations that deny rights to their workers, legislating an end to the corporate ability to hire temps, decoupling benefits from jobs and assigning them to the state. He criticizes Labor Secretary Robert Reich for the emphasis Reich placed on training; in the global hiring hall, Lind notes, it's now possible to underpay highly skilled as well as less-skilled workers.
Since Lind wrote The Next American Nation, however, Reich has evinced a new appreciation for the role of unions in maintaining or raising the levels of wages and skills. Lind offers no such assessment; indeed, his book conveys almost no sense whatever of how to get from the here and now to anything even approximating his vision. Briefly, he suggests two Archimedean points on which to change the nation: Congress and the military. But the military has been a color-blind meritocracy for a number of years now, during which time, as he sees it, the civilian society has been moving only farther away from both those ideals. And Congress (and particularly the House, in which Lind invests greater hopes) is hardly a movement for social change. It is a reflection, for better or worse, of what's going on in the broader society.
Indeed, a silence stalks the books of advocacy here--Lind's and Greenberg's in particular--as it stalks American liberalism generally. The progressive revisionists have a strategy that's sound--a deracialized, more class-based liberalism. They do not have a theory of agency: Who builds this class-based liberalism? There is a missing link in this scenario-- some institution that could promote greater racial solidarity among American workers and jump-start their incomes, that could challenge the power of business in Congress, that could help put the party back in the party. For the sake of argument, let's call these institutions unions.
In fairness, this is an understandable omission. Unions have been in decline for decades; many have been complicit in their own demise. All of these books (except Dionne's) appeared before the revolution at the AFL-CIO (and Dionne does indeed acknowledge the change and its potential for reshaping the landscape). And what has changed at the AFL-CIO is only the subjective side of the union equation: The movement is now led by people with a passion and the smarts to endeavor to save it. But the objective side of the equation, the weakness of unions in the new world economy, remains unaltered.
Still, the inadequacy of unions past to the challenges of the last 30 years, and the uncertain prospects of unions present in facing the challenges of global capital, do not gainsay the fact that unions are the indispensable agents of the neoprogressives' strategic vision. The story of white working-class estrangement from the Democrats coincides and overlaps with--and in many ways is the same story as--the decline of unions. And for all their imperfections, unions consistently remain the only way to alter white working-class voting. Amid the wreckage of the '94 elections, white male unionists still voted 18 percent more Democratic than their white male nonunion counterparts. But unionists comprised a mere 14 percent of the electorate--down from 25 percent just a decade earlier. At that level of unionization, the progressive resurgence will be a long time coming.
Dionne argues that we are in a period like the end of the nineteenth century, when the coming of a new industrial order called a progressive response into being. But while the Progressives indeed arose during this period, they didn't truly prevail until some time later. The national corporation and the economy it created appeared on a large scale in the 1890s, and it was not until the 1930s that Progressives were able to create around it the national state and national unions that brought with them a more humane industrial order. The multinational corporation appeared on a large scale in the 1970s; the creation of the multinational mixed economy, for which the rebirth of a vibrant American union movement is an absolute prerequisite, is anything but imminent. But the strategies to which these books point put us firmly on that path.
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