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It's The Constitution AND The Decline of Labor Unions, Stupid!

Osita Nwanevu
8 min read
It's The Constitution AND The Decline of Labor Unions, Stupid!
Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union meet Lyndon Johnson (Kheel Center)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


In my survey of writing about January 6th, I managed to miss one of the best pieces around on the democratic crisis and where it came from. In their anniversary essay for Boston Review, the University of Washington’s Jake Grumbach and UC Berkeley’s Ruth Berins Collier examined the economic factors that have contributed to the erosion of democratic norms and our putatively democratic institutions. Some of their analysis is well-precedented. As they write and as we all know, “American democracy” is working quite well for capital as poorly as it might be working for most Americans, and major corporations wield an increasing amount of power over our lives outside political institutions and the state. But Grumbach and Collier also argue, more specifically, that an important and familiar part of the story of how workers lost power in the economy ⁠— the decline of labor unions ⁠— also largely explains our political dysfunction and the intensification of anti-democratic sentiment on the right. As they see it, mass democracy in America as we’ve known it was really the product of industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the political organizations it spawned, especially the labor movement:

Once labor unions were legalized, they made the decision to participate in democratic politics and became the most important lower-class interest organizations in the country. Our contention is that unions were critical in sustaining mass democracy by virtue of their role in organizing, mobilizing, and sustaining a politics that embraced a broad pro-democratic coalition, which they were able to do on the basis of materialist demands that went beyond the specific interests of their own membership. With the decline of unions and of an industrial workforce on which they were based in the second half of the twentieth century, no alternative organization has been able to articulate a unifying coalition with similar force.

The focus on material interests was important. Grumbach and Collier argue that as unions declined and progressive movements increasingly took to the slate of issues we now call “identity politics” and other “post-material” concerns ⁠— this is convenient terminology, but I’m sure the authors understand the difficulty of separating economic and social issues ⁠— the mass base of workers the labor movement had been able to democratically mobilize splintered, with a reactionary faction of whites turning to resentments that weakened their support for democratic principles:

It is in this context of interest fragmentation and the decline of unions that the materialist interest dimension of mass politics ceased to be predominant, even as economic issues were salient to capital interests and, indeed, to policymakers. As good jobs disappeared and a precarious segment of the workforce, disproportionately people of color, increased, it is notable that the non-unionized were most successful when unions were able to defend their interests, as particularly in Scandinavia.
The declining dominance of the materialist dimension in the organizational structure of interest articulation, combined with a set of economic crises that began in the 1970s, made room for a politics of the “passions” rather than of the “interests.” Our argument is not a simple story of backlash to immigration and civil rights movements; rather, it points to three changes that underwrote mass support for democracy that came with the decline of unions. First, whereas unions organized politics and popular support around a single predominant dimension, contemporary political conflict is fragmented across many different issue dimensions. Second, unions, the most important mass organization on one side of that conflict, saw democracy as helpful in achieving its goal. Third, the weakening of worker demand-making around materialist issues made societies more vulnerable to mobilization of the passions of xenophobia and racism, especially by those whose economic interests are opposed to those of workers.

The piece is neither a rejection of identity politics nor an apologia for the old labor movement’s bigotries and hierarchies. But the efforts to overcome those hierarchies and forge a multiracial coalition of workers contesting power together out of shared economic interest were undeniably important to the cause of multiracial democracy.

Another thing worth teasing out explicitly here is that the “post-material” interests Grumbach and Collier mention ⁠—  "race, gender, and sexuality rights and nuclear and environmental risks" ⁠— were advanced both through major legislation like the Civil Rights Acts and also through less democratic avenues, including the judiciary and the regulatory state. That’s no slight against those issues, but it seems possible that the progress we’ve managed to make on them outside of Congress obscured the unresponsiveness of our core and, again, only putatively democratic institutions ⁠— should it really surprise us that generations that saw the Supreme Court desegregate schools, protect abortion rights, and legalize gay marriage within their lifetimes weren’t fretting too much about the design of the Senate until recently?

The piece also got me thinking about the concept of political “interests” broadly speaking. There’s a passage where they quote Albert Hirschman:

As economist Albert O. Hirschman argued in The Passions and the Interests (1977), material interests came to be seen and championed in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political thought as “containing the unruly and destructive passions.” It is no coincidence that the illiberal alternate political cleavage of resentment and scapegoating has been especially appealing where deindustrialization has occurred and where unions have been in retreat and no longer organize or lead the political struggle and at a point when materialist advance has been halted for so many.

I haven’t read The Passions and the Interests, but that characterization of how “material” interests were thought to work seems accurate to me, although maybe in a different sense than the passage implies. In the American context, the Founders and Framers definitely believed that material interests could contain unruly passions in the sense that they took it for granted that the propertied would demonstrate more wisdom and prudence in politics than the unpropertied given their material stake in stable political outcomes. So there, the desire to contain the “unruly and destructive passions” by way of material politics was an anti-democratic ambition ⁠— it justified restrictions on the franchise and the anti-democratic features of the Constitution.

While the desire to protect the property of the wealthy was a first principle, Madison in particular had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the different interest groups a society as large and diverse as the United States could contain beyond ⁠— and even within ⁠—basic class divides. Hanna Pitkin goes over this in her brilliant 1967 book The Concept of Representation:

For Madison, interests are multiple, shifting alignments, largely subjective, and likely to conflict with the welfare of the nation. While there is still a “landed interest” and a “manufacturing interest,” “These classes may again be subdivided according to the different production of different situations and soils, and according to different branches of commerce and manufactures.” “These economic groupings are supplemented and crosscut by others “founded on accidental differences in political, religious, or other opinions, or an attachment to the persons of leading individuals.” Societies are divided into various interests “as they happen to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interests, the inhabitants of this district, or that district, the followers of this political leader or that political leader, the disciples of this religious sect or that religious sect.”

(This thought is worth a post all its own, but the divides between the specific business interests embedded within our major party coalitions have been the subject of more and more analysis on the left, including Melinda Cooper's recent piece for Dissent on the GOP's 'family capitalists' and Mike Davis' analysis of the 2020 election results for New Left Review.)

The Concept of Representation is one of the most thorough examinations ever written of all “representation” can mean and the contradictory possibilities embodied within it as an idea. And one important thing the book clarifies is that Madison saw represenation as a means of taming the competing interest groups within society rather than a means of substantively empowering them:

For Madison, the welfare of the nation is achieved by inaction and stability. On the rare occasions when positive action is required, he assumes that there will be no difficulty in securing a substantial majority to support it. His concern is to prevent action based on factious interests, and it is this end that representation serves. Representation makes possible a large republic, which makes it more difficult for any faction to become a majority. But in a wider sense, Madison envisages representation as a way of bringing dangerous social conflict into a single central forum, where it can be controlled by balancing and stalemating.
The task of representative government is thus, in a sense, to bring the major social forces into the legislature and keep them there until time passes. Here we come to the significance of Madison’s references to a more rational, objective, and long-range interest than the interests of factions ⁠— what he calls “true” or “enlarged and permanent” interest. For Madison does have hope that time will correct passion and prejudice, and allow "the mild voice of reason” to prevail over immediate, selfish gain; consequently, the task of representative government is to preserve the status quo until the mild voice can do its job. Although “interested men” may mislead the people at times to pursue “some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage,” the people “themselves will afterwards be most ready to lament and condemn” those measures. That is why “the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers." Like Burke, Madison thinks that even ordinary men can be expected to see the light given enough time and information. But Burke considers representation as a device for arriving at the right solution in Parliament and enacting it, with hopes that the people will eventually accept the action. Madison, by contrast, seese representation as a way of stalemating action in the legislature, and thus in society, until wisdom prevails among the people.

Everything Madison said should be understood from this context. Even if you ignore the fact that the republic he and the Framers constructed was a republic for white men ⁠⁠— even if you ignore the fact that the majorities he was interested in defending were majorities of the privileged ⁠— you still have to wrestle with the fact that the man simply did not believe in tightly responsive popular governance even for the few Americans he deemed worthy enough for political participation. Our system was designed to frustrate voters into thinking better of their opinions, not to reflect them. In fact, Madison doubted “public opinion” was even reliably available to leaders for reasons that were, frankly, defensible before the age of speedy mass communication and the modern opinion poll. “No member of the [Constitutional Convention] could say what the opinions of his constituents were at this time,” he said in Philadelphia, “much less could he say what they would think if possessed of the information and lights possessed by the members here; and still less what would be their way of thinking six or twelve months hence.”

I’ve been writing about the Founding and the Constitution more and more not as a matter of historical pedantry, but because I think understanding the origins of the system helps us understand why certain features of it have become problematic and clarifies, too, the extent to which those features can be meaningfully reformed without a fundamental departure from the Framers’ original design. It’s about strategy and rhetorical emphasis, really ⁠— simply put, I think our conversations about democracy should be about democracy, and not litigations of whether our contemporary understandings of it can be understood as congruent with the intentions of men who lived over 200 years ago. If it’s true that labor unions helped build a culture that might have helped sustain multiracial democracy, it seems likely to me that reviving that culture will involve talking about democracy in ways broad enough to encompass the role democratic values can play in both economic and political life.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

DirecTV drops OAN. From Mother Jones:

On Friday, DirecTV announced that it had informed Herring Networks, OAN’s parent company, that OAN’s current contract would not be renewed when it expires in April. No reason was given, but Bloomberg reports that pay-TV providers have been dropping channels with lower viewership in an attempt to lower costs as subscribers turn to online alternatives.
From the beginning, the network has positioned itself far to the right of even Fox News, regularly featuring pundits who aren’t welcome on other channels and aggressively promoting stories involving conspiracy theories, including the Seth Rich conspiracy, COVID denialism, and anti-vaccine disinformation. OAN cemented its position as former president Donald Trump’s favorite network after the 2020 election by continuing to question the election results well after Fox and other major news networks declared Joe Biden the winner.
Despite its popularity with Trump and his circle of supporters, OAN currently has fairly limited distribution. Following DirecTV’s decision Verizon’s FiOS service is the only television provider to still offer OAN. But DirecTV was the channel’s major source of revenue and viewership.

Good night.