On the long list of strategic errors and ethical misjudgments by the Democratic Party establishment, one of the worst examples of both has been the party’s failure under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to defend unions against the longstanding assault from corporate America and the right.
For decades in the wake of the New Deal, the union movement was closely aligned with the Democratic Party, both in strategic objectives and in philosophy, just as the GOP aligned itself with the religious right.
Unions and the Democrats both served the interests of average workers, together providing a bulwark that fought for a more equal distribution of the nation’s wealth. For years, Democrats enacted laws that made it easier for workers to organize, and harder for corporate America to undermine the solidarity of union workers. As they did so, the wages and benefits of average workers rose accordingly, creating the largest middle class in world history. And they knew which politicians made it all possible, which is why Democrats dominated U.S. politics from the 1930s into the 1970s.
But times have changed. Republicans and their corporate backers learned how to fight unions, and Democrats failed to defend them. Writing in The Guardian shortly after Trump won election, economist Robert Reich put it well, noting that the Democratic establishment “stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class – failing to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violate them, or help workers form unions with simple up-or-down votes. Partly as a result, union membership sank from 22 percent of all workers when Bill Clinton was elected president to less than 12 percent today, and the working class lost bargaining leverage to get a share of the economy’s gains.”
The withering of unions has changed both America’s economy and how Americans vote. A recent study (see nber.org/papers/w24259) published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that the disappearance of unions is directly undermining support for Democratic candidates. The NBER examined the impact of so-called “right-to-work” rules that have been passed in many states, including many neighboring Minnesota, in recent years. The study examined voting patterns in neighboring counties, separated only by a state line. These counties were very similar in terms of economic and demographic conditions, at least until the passage of right-to-work laws, which are designed to undermine union membership by preventing unions from requiring members to pay union dues. Such laws diminish the basic solidarity at the heart of unionism and they’ve proven effective at weakening unions and ending collective bargaining, leaving all the workers worse off in the end.
But the passage of right-to-work laws affects more than just workers’ pay and benefits.
The NBER study found that voters in the counties where right-to-work laws were enacted, saw a dramatic fall-off in Democratic support, and overall voter turnout. While the neighboring counties generally voted very similarly in the past, within just four elections of enactment of right-to-work laws, the Democratic share of the vote in the examined counties fell from 43 percent to just 27 percent, even as Democratic support in their neighboring, union-friendly, county remained largely the same. Voter turnout also dipped, particularly among those voters who had voted Democratic in the past.
The study provides the clearest evidence yet linking the decline of Democratic political dominance with the party’s woeful neglect of the union movement and the interests of average workers. It reveals how the Democrats, under the leadership of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have sown the seeds of their own downfall and created an opening for a demagogue like Donald Trump.
When the Democratic Party establishment, now dominated by highly-paid Washington-based fundraisers and consultants, ponders “what happened,” in 2016, they would do well to spend less time complaining about Russian interference and a lot more time looking in the mirror.
What happened is they lost touch with their base. In politics, that’s always a recipe for disaster.