Fix the Democratic Party or Start a New Party? The Progressive’s Conundrum

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The Democrats’ most popular senator is actually an independent, and a 75-year-old Jew with a Brooklyn accent, at that. If this is not concerning to a party that touts its diversity and its youthful energy among its strengths, I don’t know what else is. (Photo Credit: Bernie Sanders/Twitter)

Who’s the most popular figure in American politics right now? Well, obviously, our fearless leader Donald Trump, right? Um, yeah, no. As of April 12, per Gallup, Trump’s approval rating sits at 41%, seemingly not all that much improved since hurling 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria. In fact, since the start of his term, President Trump has gone from having essentially equal approval and disapproval ratings at a point in the mid-40s, to having his approval rating dip to a level of near-stasis around the 40-percent-mark and his disapproval rating escalate to a near-constant rating upward of 50%. So, yeah, it’s not that guy. For the sake of a contrast, Barack Obama finished his tenure with about a 60% approval rating—though let’s be real—as feelings of buyer’s remorse began to kick in shortly after Trump’s electoral victory, this figure was bound to be on the incline.

Given Congress’s depressed approval rating of late, you would be loath to thinking it would be a member of the House of Representatives or Senate either. Back to Gallup we go. Though hating on Congress is nothing new, it’s still fairly startling to see only one in five Americans giving our lawmakers a proverbial thumbs-up. Democratic respondents, likely frustrated with a Republican-controlled legislature running amok, report a scant 10% approval rating. Independents, likely believing both major parties, by and large, suck eggs, lie at the 20% national average. Even Republican respondent approval ratings of Congress are down; the current approval rating sits at 31%, notable after a 50% rating and seven-year high in February. Apparently, people don’t like it when you screw around with their health care—who knew!

Let’s back up a moment. Who is the most popular senator with his or her constituents? Wait a minute—could it be a certain senator from Vermont? Close! Patrick Leahy is second among senators in terms of approval from the residents he represents. Oh, wait—you meant the other senator from Vermont. Yup, the Granite State has quite the one-two punch in terms of positive vibes, and leading the country in terms of the most beloved senator in these United States is none other than Bernie Sanders, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. Both of Maine’s senators, Angus King (#5) and Susan Collins (#6), also ranked in the top ten, which is actually pretty well balanced between Democrats/independents and Republicans.

It should be noted that Sanders, while most-approved of within this poll and possessing the widest gap of approval to disapproval percentage, does not get the lowest disapproval rating overall; that honor goes to Brian Schatz of Hawaii (#8). For the sake of completion, lowest approval rating goes to Thom Tillis of North Carolina (39%), with Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan (39%), Robert Menendez of New Jersey (40%), and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada (42%), and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada (43%) rounding out the bottom five. Honorable mention goes to dishonorable Mitch McConnell (44%), Republican senator from Kentucky, the only person in the Senate to garner a higher disapproval rating (47%) than his or her approval rating. Congratulations, Mitch—you toad-faced heel.

Forget about mere popularity within the state of Vermont, though. Nationally speaking, Bernie Sanders, according to a FOX News poll dated March 15, enjoys a 61% approval rating, as opposed to a 32% approval rating. That’s significantly better than Donald Trump (44% favorable; 53 unfavorable) or even Mike Pence (47% favorable; 43% unfavorable). As Janice Williams, writing for Newsweek, frames these statistics, this kind of appeal might have been enough to give Bernie the W in a theoretical head-to-head matchup with Trump. Whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess, but regardless, these kinds of figures likely merit the Democratic Party’s attention.

While Sanders ran on the Democratic ticket in opposition to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries, as a member of the Senate, he is, of course, an independent, and one of only two in the Senate alongside the aforementioned Angus King of Maine. As much as Bernie Sanders is keen to preserve his identity as an independent, though, the establishment wing of the Democratic Party appears content to keep him at arm’s length. Such is the complex dance between progressives who are sympathetic to the aims of the Democratic Party at large, especially as regards the Dems’ superior positions on matters of social policy, and mainstream Democrats who, generally speaking, want nothing to do with progressive candidates.

The well-publicized tension between the then-leadership of the Democratic National Committee and the Sanders presidential campaign provides perhaps the most salient example of this divide, but even after a failed attempt to keep Donald Trump out of the White House—an attempt which featured Bernie, upon suspension of his campaign, throwing his support behind Hillary Clinton, mind you—this same kind of tug-of-war informs Democrats’ backing of more liberal candidates, or lack thereof. This past Tuesday, the results of a special election to fill the vacancy of the House seat left vacant by Mike Pompeo’s appointment and confirmation as CIA director were surprisingly close given the setting: a Kansas district, which is situated in a deeply red state and which opted for Trump over Clinton by a 27% margin in the presidential election. Only seven percentage points separated the winner, Republican Ron Estes, from the runner-up, Democratic challenger James Thompson. Whether or not this one election heralds a more pronounced Democratic uprising in future elections is yet to be seen, but in another upcoming special election for a House seat in Georgia, Democratic supporters are licking their chops at the chance to grant victory to Jon Ossoff and send a message—however small—to President Trump and the GOP that their agenda is not approved of by a significant cross-section of the American population.

Give Republicans a run for their money in two red states? Democratic leadership must have invested a lot in both candidates, huh? Maybe—maybe not. In terms of Jon Ossoff, the candidate for the vacant House seat in Georgia, both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have invested heavily in support of him, adding millions of dollars to the millions his campaign has raised, eager to spin the narrative of sticking it to Donald Trump. As for James Thompson, the progressive from Kansas? Eh, not so much. Sure, after the fact, the Democratic establishment added the closeness of the race between Estes and Thompson to this same anti-GOP, anti-Trump narrative. But during the campaign itself? Support for James Thompson was quantifiably lacking, despite his identification under the Democratic Party banner.

Michael Sainato, writing for Observer, explores the absenteeism of the DCCC and DNC in a piece that lays out the situation pretty succinctly from the title alone: “The DNC and DCCC Confirm They Won’t Support Progressive Candidates.” Here is a notable excerpt from the piece:

The Democratic establishment tried to appropriate Thompson’s success in the district as a testament that anti-Trump sentiments will translate to big wins for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. However, when pressed on why they failed to support Thompson, they dismissed criticisms for ignoring the race. The Huffington Post reported, “A DCCC official who spoke with The Huffington Post on Monday, however, argued that the party’s involvement would have been ‘extremely damaging’ to Thompson because it would have been used against him by Republicans, who have poured significant money into the race. Thompson has performed better than expected in the race because he stayed under the radar, the official added.” This claim makes little sense, especially given that Thompson’s Republican opponent portrayed him as an establishment Democrat anyways.

Rather than this special election representing an anomaly or misstep from the Democratic leadership, there’s a prevailing trend within the party’s establishment to select and support weak, centrist candidates who provide the party with opportunities to fundraise from corporate donors. This trend is symptomatic of a revolving door within the Democratic Party leadership, where party officials often sell out to work for Republican lobbying firms.

In this equation, Ossoff is that “centrist” candidate, which explains the disparity of support. The thinking from the leaders of the Democratic Party seems to be that a moderate Democrat is better than a Republican—even when courting big money from similar or even shady sources, or even “selling out” to working for Republican lobbying firms after the fact. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and as progressives might argue, money in politics, whether at the behest of Dems or Republicans, is still a corrupting influence.

Thus, when it comes to progressive candidates and voters, there’s a dilemma concerning how and where they swear their allegiance in upcoming elections. By virtue of the Republican Party’s alliance with regressive conservative elements, and Trump’s own collusion with the far-right, the right side of the spectrum is a no-go. Supporting the Democratic Party, meanwhile, is problematic in its own right when its leadership doesn’t support them back, hews too close to center, and refuses to authentically embrace grassroots fundraising and organizing on a national level. Existing independent/third-party options are likewise less than savory owing to questionable organizational infrastructure and, as regards the Green Party and Libertarian Party specifically, figureheads in Jill Stein and Gary Johnson that are considered punchlines more so than viable presidential candidates. Broadly speaking, the current list of options for liberals is fraught with frustration.

In fact, if a recent article by Alex Roarty for McClatchy DC is any indication, liberals are “fuming” over the Democratic establishment’s reluctance to stick its neck out for anyone of a more progressive tint. Both Jim Dean of Democracy for America and members of our Our Revolution, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers, are cited within the piece as reproaching the Democrats for their refusal to “wake up” and to stop ignoring districts they don’t think they can win because they are too “red.” Even James Thompson, the also-ran man from Kansas, was critical of the Democratic Party’s approach to his race, averring simply, “(DCCC) and DNC need to be doing a 50-state strategy.”

The DCCC and DNC spokespeople cited in Roarty’s article seemed to defend the lack of backing for Thompson by throwing up their hands and declaring the race “unwinnable,” a sentiment echoed all the way up to Committee chair Tom Perez himself. This is not the kind of talk that helps energize a party and recruit new members, though. First of all, yes, James Thompson lost, but only by seven percentage points, and with the likes of Mike Pence and Ted Cruz making appearances and Republican donors infusing money into the race against him in the final weeks and days when the final result seemed not so sure. In addition, and in the arena of the self-fulfilling prophecy, if you never try to make inroads in certain districts and areas of the country (e.g. Midwest, South), you are never going to win. It didn’t play well for Hillary Clinton to write off Trump supporters as “deplorables,” and it arguably doesn’t help the Democratic Party to ignore whole swaths of the United States of America.

In short, what are progressive liberals to do, especially when they see some of their most popular figures in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison reduced to flunkies for the Clinton campaign and/or donation solicitors in the name of “party unity?” See, I think the Democratic leadership thinks we progressives are too stupid to notice that they are less concerned with what’s in our hearts and minds, and more concerned with what’s in our wallets and purses—or that they simply don’t care if we do notice. I believe, however, that progressives—young progressives, especially—are better at reading authenticity or its absence than today’s political leaders give them credit for, such that when Sanders or Warren threw their support behind Hillary for political reasons, or when they create a position in the DNC of deputy chair that is even more ceremonially meaningless than that of Perez’s role of chairperson, it rings hollow. As it should. Representative democracy doesn’t truly qualify as such unless constituents feel they are being represented by someone who embraces and exemplifies their values, and consistently, the Democratic Party brass had made it evident that they can’t or won’t go as far on matters of grassroots fundraising and policy than their more liberal supporters are asking them to.

As Jonathan H. Martin, professor of sociology at Framingham State University, and others of a progressive mindset are convinced, the answer to the question, “What do we do?” is “Form a new party.” As Martin depicts the situation, if people can’t coalesce around an existing party that has seemingly benefited from a Bernie bump of sorts, such as the Green Party, Justice Party, Socialist Alternative, or Vermont Progressive Party, then a new organization needs to be forged, with those who “feel the Bern” in mind. According to Prof. Martin, the two groups who are leading this charge, at least as of late February, are the Progressive Independent Party, which aims to be a coalition of the willing in terms of progressive, third-partiers, and others on the left, and the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, which pretty much says what it entails up front.

Of the two, Jonathan Martin finds the latter more immediately appealing, for if someone as popular as Bernie Sanders were to break ranks and form a new party, polling indicates that not only does a sizable subset of the voting population desire a viable third party, but many Americans do want the kinds of bold reforms that a Sanders type proposes. Martin highlights both the likelihood that this vision could move forward with Bernie at the helm, and the ultimate choice that progressives face in the political uncertainty following the 2016 election, with the following ideas:

While recruiting Sanders for a “people’s party” may sound like a long-shot effort, his own statements indicate that he remains open to third party politics, and might well go that route if his work to reform the Democrats fails. However, if Bernie doesn’t eventually do this, the movement for a new party may go forward without him.

In any case, the DNC election and subsequent events should challenge both influential and ordinary progressives to ask themselves how long they will continue sailing on the U.S.S. Democrat. That ship is not headed toward the desired destination, nor is it even designed to go there. Moreover, in the wake of the 2016 election, it is a boat that appears to be rotting, drifting, and gradually sinking. Why not jump aboard a different vessel, one that really has the potential to get us where we urgently need to go?

For Bernie’s part, the man still seems unwilling to abandon ship, continually speaking in terms of reforming or rebuilding the Democratic Party in more democratic fashion, and eschewing the pleas of Jill Stein and Company to get on board with a third-party agenda. At the immediate moment, therefore, it seems more probable that a theoretical People’s Party will have to soldier on without their muse, though the alternative is certainly not impossible considering just how tiresome the Democratic establishment can be for the rest of us—and we’re not even interacting with them regularly like Bernie Sanders is. As for the rest of us? Perhaps we don’t quite see the Democrats as a rotting, drifting, sinking ship, but how many of us have one foot in a lifeboat—with some rope handy just in case we get the urge to kidnap Captain Sanders and hold him as our progressive prisoner? Presumably, such a political maneuver would be intended for 2020, as the 2018 midterms are just a year-and-change away, but to take a genuine shot at disrupting the duopoly held by the Democratic and Republican Parties, even that kind of mobilization needs to happen sooner than later. In other words, if liberals are thinking about bailing, they may need to make a decision fast with political waters rising.

Fix the Democratic Party or start a new party altogether? For progressives across the United States, it’s a conundrum, to be sure. This much, however, is clear: the Democratic Party, as it is, can’t function as a cohesive unit in the long term, and progressives backed by/composed of a coalition of young voters and working-class individuals either need to be invited to the table, or find a new restaurant altogether. What to do, what to do?

Right-to-Work—Not Right, Especially Not for Workers

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Sure, right-to-work has nothing to do with the actual right to work and depresses wages for union and non-union workers, but let’s keep misleading people and extolling its virtues. (Photo Credit: Darron Cummings/AP)

I consider my father to be an intelligent individual. Before recently retiring, he worked for several decades as an accountant, and toward the end of his gainful employment, he also served as a human resources director of sorts, absorbing most of the functions that a full-time, HR-exclusive professional would for a small business. He is quick-witted, has a good sense of humor, and continually tries to improve himself by challenging himself physically and mentally. With respect to politics, however, I feel his judgment lately is somewhat suspect, especially as it errs on the side of the conservative. My parents are both lifelong Democrats, and at one point, Dad even joked that he would vote for an ax murderer if he were a Democrat rather than a Republican. (My father does not deny outright that he said this, but he does not admit it either, and legitimately or not, claims not to remember this statement.)

With this personal political history in mind, it caused the rest of the family great concern earlier in the 2016 presidential campaign when Dad said he was considering voting for Donald Trump. For someone on the Republican ticket, Trump’s legacy as a conservative was notably lacking, so the idea that the family patriarch would be considering a vote for a GOP candidate was not immediately so alarming. His apparent support for Trump, a grade-A asshole, meanwhile, was. Mom, an avowed believer in Hillary Clinton, if for no other reason than wanting to see a woman become President, belabored the point whenever the election or politics came up. Dad responded by saying that he liked Trump because he was straightforward and “not a politician.” On this note, I agreed that politicians and politics as usual had justifiably driven resistance to “establishment” or “mainstream” figures within both parties, and thereby had helped fuel the billionaire’s appeal. But electing Donald Trump as President of the United States, I argued, was like, because you didn’t enjoy Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, burning down the whole library in protest. Even as a symbolic gesture, a vote for Trump was a vote for hate and a vote against reason and, you know, actually being qualified for one’s intended office.

Eventually, my father began to sour on Donald Trump, not so much because of his intended policies—or lack thereof—but mostly with respect to his denigration of women. As good as any reason not to cast a vote for the man, as far as I was concerned. To wit, I don’t know who Dad voted for this past November. All I know is that since the election and in the months since, every time a discussion of a remotely political nature has threatened to rear its head in our house, he has sought to put the kibosh on it, plaintively asking, “Do we have to talk about politics?” Accordingly, it is pretty rare that my father makes any political commentary unsolicited. (His social commentary is more regular, though no less disturbing, particularly as it concerns anti-feminist attitudes or criticisms of appeals to diversity and political correctness.)

One area where Dad has been notably vocal, though, and a point on which I patently disagree with him, is the subject of unions and other professional organizations. Whether it is because of his experience in the human resources realm or in spite of it, or even related to my mother’s dealings with union representation (Mom is a registered nurse), I can’t say for sure, but suffice it to say, Pops believes unions are “ruining this country.” Harsh words, but Dad is certainly not alone in his antipathy to these organizations. In 2013, Al Lewis, now-business editor of The Houston Chronicle and then-Dow Jones Newswires reporter, Wall Street Journal columnist, and writer for MarketWatch, explored America’s distaste for unions alongside their apparent acceptance or tacit compliance of many with standard operating procedure for corporations and the executives who manage them. Lewis describes the psychology of anti-union sentiment:

Unions…could counter many of the economic injustices that plague America. Unfortunately, unions have lost their power to do so. Union membership in the private sector is down to 6.6 percent of all workers, [a] Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed. In the public sector, 35.9 percent of all employees remain unionized.

This is why, as Americans, we often view unions as a cause of higher taxes. We also are still wondering where the mob buried former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. We sense a more subtle form of institutional corruption in the unions’ alignment with mostly Democratic politicians. We detest the extra layer of bureaucracy unions add to any workplace. And we suspect that it can kill business.

The pension liabilities some companies have amassed in past union negotiations simply blow our minds. And we are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers. So by now, most Americans have decided they don’t want to be in a union, even if the decline of unions correlates to the decline of the middle class.

The perception of union leaders as not merely working with political leaders, but for them or in cahoots with them, certainly would seem to work against acceptance of the abstract concept of unions in the United States, as does the image of the union leader earning a comparatively exorbitant salary next to the members of the organization he or she represents, or unions lobbying for their pensions even with many states and municipalities in a state of financial turmoil. More than mere politics or even morality, however, Al Lewis speaks to implicitly-held theories of leadership and who or what types of individuals are capable of leading groups of workers. “We are uncomfortable with the idea of monkeys running a zoo instead of zookeepers.”

Right there, we have a sense of the larger and more pervasive attitude toward those at the top of the hierarchy and those forming the base of the pyramid. Those at the top are presumed to have superior management and leadership skills, not to mention acumen in their given field. Those at the bottom are presumed to be deficient in such skills, drones born to follow rather than lead. Especially as it concerns trade professionals, there exists a stereotype of the blue-collar worker as fat, lazy, stupid, or all three. You know the idea—the plumber crouched over his work, his rear-end barely concealed by his briefs and sagging jeans. There is undoubtedly a perception gap when it comes to these two groups, a phenomenon further expounded upon by Lewis to conclude his piece:

Americans hate organized labor, but somehow they do not hate organized management. As the labor unions have declined, professional corporate managers have formed increasingly powerful guilds of their own. They belong to elite groups, such as the Business Roundtable or the Trilateral Commission, to name a couple. Many are even having a little cabal in Davos, Switzerland this week. What? You thought that was about improving the world? This is how they end up on each other’s boards, approving each others’ compensation packages.

In this subtle way, CEOs have built the most successful union in all of history. You ask a company why it pays its CEO so much, and the answer is always because it is what all the other CEOs get paid. All the other CEOs who sit on each others’ boards, that is.

It is the greatest spin job in all of economics and politics. When someone making $943 a week tries to organize, and fend for their own economic interests, Americans have been conditioned to call it socialism. But when someone making several hundred thousand dollars a week does it, they call it free enterprise.

The many, in other words, look up to the few, and as part of this aspirational model, look down upon their present station, or simply down upon those who they believe exist at a lower echelon than them. In the context of unions, when workers organize and try to buck the paradigm of the survival of the fittest paradigm, we have been conditioned to view it as a violation and an aberration rather than the way things should work. As Mr. Lewis intimates, somehow we have been led to associate the activities of professional organizations with greed and excess, or even asking for something undeserved, when executive compensation packages continue to reach obscene levels, even in the face of scandal. Simply put, the American people, by and large, seem to have it backwards when it comes to how they regard the balance of power in our society.


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Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, and Chris Christie have all taken hard-line positions against union workers. They also all happen to be shitty governors. Coincidence? (Photo Credits: Reuters/Brian Frank/Mike Theiler/Mike Blake)

So, yes, likewise simply put, public support for unions has been on the decline, as has participation from workers in those professions who might stand to become or remain members. As of the date of publication of Al Lewis’s article, union membership was down to 11.3% of all workers, a level the author notes is the lowest the United States of America has seen since the Great Depression. Rarely are comparisons to the Great Depression ever a good thing for trends involving employment and labor. This historical perspective alongside current negative feelings about organized labor forms the backdrop for the much-politicized battle over the responsibilities and rights of workers in relation to unions, often correlating with party affiliation. Journalist and academic Thomas Edsall, in an op-ed appearing in The New York Times back in 2014, phrased this succinctly with the very title of his essay, “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions.” Edsall elaborates on the depth of the GOP’s war on unions as fueled by stronger conservatives within its ranks:

Republicans are willing to go to great lengths to weaken the union movement, especially at the state level. Even as the strength of organized labor as a whole declines, conservatives view unions that represent public sector employees, in particular, as anathema. They are desperate to gut the power of the 7.2 million organized government workers — who range from teachers, to clerks in the Department of Motor Vehicles, to social workers, public hospital employees, meat and poultry inspectors, road workers, property tax auditors and civil servants in general. These are the employees who populate the extensive bureaucracies that the right loathes.

Those familiar with the evolution of the Republican Party over the past few decades should not see this reality as much of a surprise. The GOP has become unflinchingly pro-business in its adoption of fiscally and socially conservative positions, to a fault and to the extent that they have sought to undermine regulations on corporations, other businesses, and whole industries (e.g. banking and finance) because they view them as bad for business. Unions, seen as a constraint of a different sort and emblematic of the type of bureaucracy conservatives always claim to want to bypass, are therefore a prime target for Republican lawmakers and state leaders. Three Republican governors in particular are cited for their anti-labor hostility and posturing in Edsall’s op-ed. The first is Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and early 2016 presidential race dropout. The second is Rick Snyder, Michigan governor, who we now know was a key player in the lead-filled dumpster fire that is Flint’s water crisis. The last is my personal favorite, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose administration engineered Bridgegate and who has gone after the teachers’ union with fetishistic fury. Many people, myself included, would characterize actions taken by all three during their tenures, especially those leading to the crisis in Flint, as reprehensible. Does this necessarily mean that their positions on unions are therefore wrong? Well, no. But let me tell you—it doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence either.

Again, the Republican resistance to union participation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Democrats’ failure to meet this war on organized labor in kind, however, is vaguely disappointing, though perhaps not altogether surprising either, if you understand the schism within the Democratic Party between its establishment wing replete with big-money donors, and its progressive wing predicated on grassroots funding and organizing, as well as advocacy for a $15 minimum wage, among other things. Thomas Edsall puts the nature of the Democrats’ weak defense of unions in blunt terms: “If Republicans and conservatives place a top priority on eviscerating labor unions, what is the Democratic Party doing to protect this core constituency? Not much.” In saying as much, Edsall points to the Obama administration’s undermining “of the bargaining power of the most successful unions by imposing a 40% excise tax, which takes effect in 2018, on health insurance premiums in excess of $10,200 annually for individuals, and $27,500 for families, in order to finance Obamacare.” These so-called “Cadillac plans,” Edsall continues, intended as a luxury tax of sorts, are seen by labor leaders as threats to health insurance benefits that various unions have had to fight for with executive management of companies. As one labor leader quoted within the piece opines, non-union and union workers alike will be hurt by these plans, with non-union workers in particular at risk of having their benefits slashed and their deductibles skyrocket. To put this in different terms, and as far as labor groups are concerned, with “friends” like the 40% tax, who needs enemies?

It should be stressed that this Thomas Edsall piece was published in 2014, before the rise of Donald Trump. Even then, the Democratic Party was being lectured by Edsall and others to “neglect the union movement at their own peril.” Accordingly, Edsall’s closing paragraphs seem duly ominous, if not presaging the disaster of a Trump presidency outright:

Even when the party had full control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2009, Democrats gave a less than halfhearted effort to pass labor’s top priority: legislation that would make elections for union representation easier. Democratic strategists looking toward the future are focused on “the rising American electorate” — single women, minorities and the young, with no reference to labor.

At the same time, many voters in the Republican electorate are themselves middle and low income. In 2014, 67 percent of those who cast Republican ballots earned less than $100,000 in household income; 30.4 percent made less than $50,000. Republicans face their own problems remaining competitive in presidential elections, which will only worsen if they do not strengthen their support among these less affluent voters.

But even with labor unions no longer the force they were — and in fact in part because of their decline — the pressure will fall on both parties to more effectively represent the interests and rights of economically struggling voters, who at some point will refuse to tolerate their eroding income and lack of opportunity.

Translation: people are going to get pissed, and will vote accordingly. In acknowledging this effect, I, in the same breath, acknowledge that there was—as crazy as might seem at first glance—a slice of the American electorate that went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to turning out for Trump in 2016. Their numbers are not insignificant, but as Sean McElwee argues, focusing on this relatively small subset of 2016 election voters obscures the real trend that should be garnering Democrats’ attention, particularly those more entrenched members of the establishment. Where Donald Trump and his campaign succeeded, and where Hillary Clinton, her campaign, and Democrats including Obama have failed to manage, is mobilizing those who should be among their base to the polls. McElwee attributes a large part of this failure of the Dems to their reluctance to make voting rights a priority for various groups, a problem exacerbated by Republicans’ efforts to nullify any inherent advantages with these blocs. He explains:

When Republicans take power, their first priorities are voter suppression and right-to-work, their second is to destroy the capacity of government to aid working families and their third is to turn the government into a patronage machine for wealthy whites. Democrats have failed to understand that in order to win, they must do the opposite. Voting rights must be a priority, and policies should strengthen the ability of working people to organize and mobilize.

“Working people.” Sean McElwee highlights them above any other segment of the Democratic Party’s core supporters, at least traditionally speaking, and references to their “organizing” clearly invokes the importance of unions. From there, or perhaps even concurrently, Democratic leadership must invite workers and sympathetic activist/progressive groups to the table. As McElwee sees the matter, this is the only path forward for a successful Democratic Party, or to quote him directly, “Party elites will have to cede some power to make this happen.” If recent party history is any indication for the Democrats, this is easier said than done.


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If this man is introducing a piece of legislation, let alone supporting it, chances are it’s a terrible idea. (Photo Credit: Steve King)

In terms of the first priorities of the GOP underscored by McElwee in his piece and quoted above, the voter suppression angle probably isn’t that hard to understand. Numerous articles have been written about the “real” voting scandal of 2016: not the closeness of the vote in certain swing states begging a recount, not even the possible hacking of voting machines and other Russian interference in the presidential election, but voter suppression at the hands of Republicans determined to try to widen their advantage over Democrats at the polls, including by limiting opportunities of people of color to vote and creating unnecessary hurdles for them to cast their ballots. (Together with gerrymandering, these are issues of considerable importance that do not get nearly the attention they should.) Right-to-work, meanwhile, is a concept that is likely unfamiliar to the average voter, especially one from a state that does not have such a law on the books. The term “right-to-work” sounds pretty benign in it of itself. Should people have a right to work? Sure, why not? Let’s rubber stamp the bill along and call it a day, shall we?

Not so fast. It would be bad enough if “right-to-work” was a form of euphemistic language—you know, in the way “civil asset forfeiture” is another way of saying “the police gets to take your shit if you’re at all implicated in a crime and without proof of wrongdoing or even being charged.” But it’s more than that—it’s a complete misnomer. Right-to-work has nothing to go with the right to work. The University of Missouri–Kansas City recently featured a profile on right-to-work legislation in the University News, UMKC’s independent student newspaper. First, the editorial defines the term and gives context to the political debate surrounding it:

Right to work legislation prohibits unions from requiring that dues or fees be paid by all employees that it represents. This usually has the effect of weakening labor organization, as unions will have less financial power to fight for higher wages or benefits such as health care. Additionally, so-called “free riders” can take advantage of the workplace protections and benefits without contributing to the unions that acquire them. Conversely, proponents say that job growth increases because businesses prefer to operate in states with right to work laws.

Data can usually be spun by either side to support or reject the claims of the other. There is no firm consensus by economists or statisticians on the effects of right to work, as it cannot be easily isolated from other factors such as variable standards of living or the economic recovery following the recession. In general it increases job growth and in general it decreases wages, all usually in tandem with other pro-business and anti-labor policies. This is a subject where hard, unbiased data is scarce and so the debate devolves into opposing ideological and political arguments. Therefore, right to work legislation probably makes less impact as an economic policy than it does as a political call-to-arms.

This University News profile, whether to be merely diplomatic about the matter, or because it legitimately wants to be cautious because of the purported lack of “hard, unbiased data” on right-to-work legislation, describes its economic impact with an air of neutrality. Still, certain elements of this synopsis scream out to the liberal and progressive reading it and suggest a negative connotation. “Has the effect of weakening labor organization.” “‘Free riders’ can take advantage…without contributing.” “Decreases wages.” “Anti-labor.” Sure, job growth may occur, but seemingly chiefly because companies prefer to operate in climates that are favorable to business and let them take advantage of workers in their own right; job number increases, after all, would mean little when the quality of the positions being added is suspect. However you slice it, that businesses would lobby and Republican politicians would craft policy in favor of right-to-work doesn’t appear to be an accident, especially not in light of the aforementioned war on unions perpetrated by the Republican Party.

This same profile, on the other hand, invokes visions of “danger” as well as cites some guy named Martin Luther King, Jr. in capturing the antipathy held by labor leaders and others toward right-to-work policy. The danger, as the UMKC student staff behind the article have identified, is “in inciting political will to elect those with an interest in supporting big business,” and that it “also attracts those businesses’ donations.” As for MLK, he was downright foreboding about the concept in the abstract. As quoted within the feature:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.

Leave it to a man assassinated, presumably for his views on matters of not only racial inequality, but income and wealth inequality, to put things in perspective and give the matter its due weight. Even then, King and others saw the importance of protecting labor from the machinations of big business and the politicians who aid and abet corporate attempts to shrink union representation. Sure, they may not have been statisticians with “hard, unbiased data” at their disposal—but perhaps they didn’t need to crunch numbers to see the writing on the wall.

For those who have crunched the numbers, meanwhile, the evidence for why right-to-work legislation is problematic for rank-and-file workers regardless of political or union affiliation is that much more compelling. In 2011, Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz authored a report for the Economic Policy Institute on the “compensation penalty” of right-to-work laws, finding that wages, the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance, and employer-sponsored pensions were all significantly lower in states that had these laws on the books. Sure, this is just one study, and the EPI does lean more to the left, but the comprehensiveness of the report alone suggests Gould and Shierholz might be on to something.

The historical implications of right-to-work legislation only magnify its problematic nature. Michael Pierce, associate professor at the University of Arkansas, directly ties right-to-work to the South’s prejudicial past (and sometimes present) and deliberate attempts to disenfranchise Jews and people of color. From his January 2017 essay:

As Kentucky legislators pass a measure outlawing the union shop and Missouri’s General Assembly contemplates doing the same, it is worth remembering that so-called Right-to-Work laws originated as means to maintain Jim Crow labor relations and to beat back what was seen as a Jewish cabal to foment a revolution. No one was more important in placing Right-to-Work on the conservatives’ political agenda than Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a larger-than-life Texan whose own grandson described him as “a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a Communist-baiter, a man who beat on labor unions not on behalf of working people, as he said, but because he was paid to do so.”

OK, you’re thinking, Vance Muse was just one man from one Christian organization. That doesn’t necessarily mean much. No, but when it inspires whole states, their governors, and their legislators to pursue right-to-work legislation specifically to marginalize unions and their members, this is more than just the trivial misdeeds of one man. Pierce closes his piece with these thoughts:

The Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation and allied industrialists were so pleased with the Christian American Association’s success in passing the anti-strike measure that they agreed to underwrite a campaign in 1944 to secure a Right-to-Work amendment for the Arkansas constitution. This placed Arkansas alongside Florida and California as the first states where voters could cast ballots for Right-to-Work laws. While Muse and the Christian Americans consulted with the campaigns in California and Florida, they led the one in Arkansas.

During the Arkansas campaign, the Christian Americans insisted that right-to-work was essential for the maintenance of the color line in labor relations. One piece of literature warned that if the amendment failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Similarly, the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation justified its support of Right-to-Work by citing organized labor’s threat to Jim Crow. It accused the CIO of “trying to pit tenant against landlord and black against white.”

In November 1944, Arkansas and Florida became the first states to enact Right-to-Work laws (California voters rejected the measure). In both states, few blacks could cast free ballots, election fraud was rampant, and political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite. Right-to-Work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines. The current push for Right-to-Work in Kentucky and Missouri (along with the fueling of nativism) does something similar—it is an attempt to persuade white working people that unions and racialized others are more responsible for their plight than the choices made by capital.

Two things jump out here. The first is that there is a pronounced racist component to right-to-work—even if modern-day conservatives and Republicans downplay that factor. This may be a case of guilty by association, but Rep. Steve King, now-infamous white nationalist, loves right-to-work. Loves it. King loves it so much that he re-introduced legislation in the House to institute a National Right to Work Act. Where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire, and when there’s bad policy with the specter of racism looming, there tends to be Steve King. Just saying. The second is the mentality that connects to the earlier consideration of Americans “hating unions more than CEOs.” Anti-labor, anti-immigrant—it’s all part of the same classist soup that corporations and the wealthy use to depress the working class by turning them on themselves. Divide and conquer—a page straight out of the GOP playbook.


Given the efforts of Republican Party and industry leaders to weaken the rights of labor, in accordance with any number of factors that lend themselves to lower union enrollment numbers and fewer dues being paid, it would seem that the Democratic Party, a party which preaches inclusiveness and fighting for “the little guy,” would exhibit a more robust, if not more cohesive, challenge to the erosion of the bargaining power of the working class amid the erosion of manufacturing jobs. Owing largely to its own moneyed interests, however, the Democrats are currently primarily a fundraising operation, and only secondarily a defender and mobilizer of organized labor, allowing Republicans to undercut them in individual elections such as the 2016 presidential election, as well as threaten their political support from unions by taking labor group endorsements all but for granted. To reiterate the words of Thomas Edsall, however, they do so at their own peril. As Edsall notes, the Democratic percentage among union voters has consistently stayed in the 60% range for the past two decades, Not only is organized labor making up a smaller and smaller part of the general electorate, though, but Republicans continue to win local, state and federal offices despite changing demographics which should favor the Dems. If Democrats can’t even get into office, let alone do something about the strength of unions and their ability to organize, it paints a pretty grim picture for the working class in the United States.

Right-to-work: it has nothing to do with the right to work, nor is it right for workers, union or not. And if nothing is done to form a coalition to resist attempts to disempower unions and those workers who would join their ranks, we could be on our way back to the days and ways of the robber barons sooner than we think—if we aren’t there already.

Replacing Justice Scalia with, Well, Justice Scalia

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Judge Neil Gorsuch isn’t Justice Antonin Scalia—but he’s not that far off either. (Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On the eve of the start of Black History Month, President Donald Trump didn’t disappoint his conservative fans or white supremacist supporters when he announced his nomination of silver-haired white dude Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy in the Supreme Court left when Justice Antonin Scalia left this Earth and departed for that big courthouse in the sky. Gorsuch, despite being the youngest SCOTUS nominee in a quarter of a century, has the pedigree of a Supreme Court Justice. He’s studied at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford—not a shabby hand, eh?—and in terms of his professional career, he’s been a clerk for a United States Court of Appeals judge and two Supreme Court Justices (Byron White and Anthony Kennedy), worked in a D.C. law firm, was principal deputy to Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum at the DOJ, spent time as a Thomson Visiting Professor at the University of Colorado Law School, and has served in his current role as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit out of his duty station in Denver, Colorado.

In other words, Judge Gorsuch is, unlike a number of Trump’s picks for his Cabinet, eminently qualified for the position for which he has been tapped, and for that, I respect the man. Do I think he should be confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice, however? In a word, no. It’s nothing personal. I mean, heck, I didn’t know who the guy was until Pres. Trump’s prime-time announcement. Regardless, as I’m sure a number of key Democrats do, I have concerns about his priorities as a jurist and whether or not he would let his political and personal/spiritual ideologies interfere with his interpretation of the Constitution as a member of SCOTUS. Accordingly, I feel the Dems should take their time and do their due diligence before rubber-stamping Neil Gorsuch into service on the highest court in the country. After all, and if nothing else, it’s only fair.

On that last note, let’s take a few steps back and consider the current political climate in which we’re operating. In a vacuum, given his extensive experience, Gorsuch might not be considered a terrible pick, or at the very least, Democrats might have been more willing to work with the Trump administration and Republicans on moving along the confirmation process at a brisker pace. With Pres. Trump in the midst of signing a slew of grotesque executive orders to start his tenure in the Oval Office, however, and in light of the GOP’s obstruction of the Democrats’ own pick to fill Scalia’s vacant seat in the Supreme Court in the remaining months of President Barack Obama’s run as Commander-in-Chief, a measure of resistance on the Dems’ part might not only be advisable, but warranted.

Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016, and Obama officially nominated Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s vacancy on March 16, 2016. The move on President Obama’s part to pick Garland, in addition to selecting someone highly experienced in his own right, was intended to force the hand of Republicans in the Senate. Would GOP lawmakers confirm Merrick Garland and resign to having a Supreme Court Justice many of them admired, but wasn’t as conservative as the more vocal factions within their ranks would have liked, or would they be a dick about things and refuse to hear Garland on principle that he was Obama’s choice and therefore had to be neutralized? Um, I think you know where this is going. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans chose to be a dick about things. No hearings. No votes. Nothing. Essentially, they refused to do their jobs, claiming they lacked sufficient time to process Garland’s nomination and that the incoming President should decide who fills the vacant SCOTUS seat—even though they realistically had plenty of time to respond to Merrick Garland’s bid, and there was no standard or tradition which prevented a President of the United States from nominating someone to fill a sudden vacancy in his or her final year in office. Yup, Senate Republicans were being huge dicks.

Now, of course, the shoe is on the other proverbial foot, with of course the difference being that the Republicans had a majority in the Senate then and do now, which explains why they’ve been so keen to try to ram-rod President Trump’s Cabinet picks through the confirmation process. Not only do Republican leaders seek this treatment with Neil Gorsuch, however, but to an extent, they seem to expect it. The aforementioned Mitch McConnell had this to say about what he hopes to see from his Democratic Party counterparts:

In the coming days, I hope and expect that all Senate colleagues will give him fair consideration just as we did for the nominees of newly-elected presidents Clinton and Obama. This is a judge who is known for deciding cases based on how the law is actually written, even when it leads to results that conflict with his own political beliefs. He understands that his role as a judge is to interpret the law, not his own viewpoint.

Well, Sen. McConnell, you certainly talk a good game. Indeed, McConnell is not the only person to speak highly to Gorsuch’s credentials or his education, and Trump’s nominee has been known to diverge from his conservative principles when it suits him. Still, this blanket praise for Judge Gorsuch seems to be what we should anticipate from our federal jurists at somewhat of a minimum. Deciding cases based on how the law is actually written, interpreting the law and not one’s own viewpoint—these, one might argue, are important ethical standards for any judge. That is, Neil Gorsuch shouldn’t be assumed to be or propped up to be superior to other judges just by virtue of remaining free from bias. By this token, we should ask nothing less of the man, especially if he is to take up residency on the Supreme Court.

As for the timing of the SCOTUS nomination, Mitch McConnell conveniently leaves out what happened not at the onset of Barack Obama’s tenure, but in its twilight: that of the refusal to even dignify Merrick Garland’s nomination with a response. Thus, if Republicans are indignantly claiming that Democrats delaying votes to request additional disclosures from and information about key Cabinet picks or seeking to drag their feet on confirming Mr. Gorsuch is fundamentally and substantially different from their move to block Garland’s nomination so as to eliminate their chance of replacing the late Antonin Scalia with someone other than another version of him, let me not mince words by offering that this is complete and unmitigated bullshit. 

Moreover, claiming that “the people” should be effectively allowed to pick the next Supreme Court Justice nominee by choosing the President is also balderdash, hogwash, and poppycock. Not only should politics not get in the way of going through the motions on reviewing a candidate for a SCOTUS vacancy (i.e. if you want to be dicks and refuse him after giving him a hearing, OK, but at least give him that), but numerous constituents did use their voice during the months of the GOP refusal to acknowledge President Obama’s nomination, and it was in protest, with the common refrain from those in dissent being “Do your job!” Especially for members of a political party that has made it a habit of treating those buoyed by the social safety net as lazy, shiftless sorts, refusal by Republican Party leaders to entertain Obama’s selection in the name of politics could be seen as blatantly hypocritical. At any rate, rather than heed the desires of all their constituents, Mitch McConnell and Co. catered to their base. Not terribly surprising, but ideally, not how lawmakers professing to act in everyone’s best interests should be acting.

Before we get ahead of ourselves in conceiving of Democratic Party resistance to Donald Trump’s nomination for the Supreme Court as political ransom, if not brinkmanship, it should be stressed that key Democrats do see legitimate reasons, if not to vote against Neil Gorsuch outright, to, if nothing else, demand the chance to engage him directly on his views and trends within his judicial record. Richard Primus, in a well-thought-out piece about Gorsuch for Politico, identifies him by the designation “Scalia 2.0,” a nod which probably won’t gain him much traction with Scalia 1.0’s detractors. This passage, in particular, perhaps best encapsulates the thrust of Primus’s article, and in doing so, puts President Trump’s nomination in a historical context:

The most sensible way to think of Gorsuch may therefore be to imagine what Scalia might have been if he had come along thirty years later. Scalia came of age at a time when legal conservatives were doing battle with a relatively liberal Supreme Court. Perhaps not surprisingly, they framed their views in terms of judicial restraint and deference to majoritarian lawmaking. Gorsuch’s generation of conservatives, which has lived its whole adult life with a more conservative Court, seems more inclined to see majoritarian regulation as the problem and the judiciary as a good solution.

If Richard Primus makes this very general distinction, though, why the allusion to Judge Gorsuch as a new version of Justice Scalia? Despite the two men operating or coming of age, so to speak, in different eras, they share the same staunchly conservative views on a number of key issues, including abortion, affirmative action, capital punishment, and firearms, which obviously appeals to the right. Meanwhile, noting the divergence within the quoted passage above, Neil Gorsuch tends to differ from Antonin Scalia on the dimension of the role of the courts in relation to business regulation, favoring instead greater judicial discretion and, therefore, diminished capacity for regulatory agencies to interpret existing statutes, and on the specific issue of the First Amendment, Gorsuch appears inclined to view “religious freedom” more expansively, which would stand to give businesses and closely-held corporations more leeway in how they operate and how they pay their taxes (or don’t). Again, a seeming victory for the religious right, notably evangelicals, who came out strongly for Trump in the 2016 election. In all, the concern is that Judge Gorsuch, as a Justice on the Supreme Court, would favor corporate interests over the concerns of average Americans, and would emphasize “religious freedom” over individual liberties and freedom from discriminatory business practices.

In all, representatives from both parties would appear to have important decisions to make in the coming days and weeks regarding Neil Gorsuch’s nomination. For Democrats, the chief concern is whether or not they should compel Republicans to seek 60 votes to confirm President Trump’s nominee. Under a procedural vote known as cloture, the minority party in the Senate has the ability to require the approval of 60 senators to end the debate over a candidate for a position as vital as Supreme Court Justice and advance to an up-or-down vote. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for his part, has indicated his party’s intention to seek this strategic avenue rather than to acquiesce Gorsuch’s confirmation, though some Democrats conceivably could be concerned about employing this tactic only to have it used against them in the future, and would accordingly opt to fight harder another day on another issue.

Republicans, meanwhile, could override the 60-vote requirement of the cloture-filibuster-strategic-thing-a-ma-jig—you know, assuming the Dems actually go ahead with a unified front in favor of such a maneuver—by making use of the so-called “nuclear option.” This would involve an actual change of the rules for filibustering a Supreme Court nominee, enabling the GOP to push Neil Gorsuch through the confirmation process like poop through a goose. Donald Trump, because he is a big, stupid baby and wants to get his way all the time, has advised his Republican confederates to use the nuclear option at first sign of a potential deadlock on Gorsuch’s nomination. (Side note: even when not involving actual nuclear weapons, Trump seems way too eager to use the nuclear option. Dude may have a nuke problem, in fact. Just saying.) Understandably, despite their recent history of dickishness, Republican leaders may be reluctant to “go nuclear,” along similar lines as to why Democrats might be hesitant to insist on 60 votes to confirm Judge Gorsuch. As this report by Jake Miller for CBS News details, such a rule change would come fairly close on the heels of a shift in 2014 to require only a 51-vote majority to confirm non-Supreme Court judiciary and executive branch nominees, and could be seen as greasing the ever-slippery slope away from what many would argue is a necessary system of checks and balances for the federal government. Besides, they, too, by changing the rules of the engagement, run the risk of having this tactic turned around on them.

I, of course, as a registered Democrat and as someone who would like to see the Democratic Party regain control of the Senate, if not the House and White House eventually as well, have a dog in this fight over Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I hope Senate Democrats filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, and do whatever is in their power to prolong the confirmation process in light of ideological differences they have with Judge Gorsuch. You know, push back a little. Show us party supporters you have a backbone, for Christ’s sake! Granted, challenging Republicans on the Gorsuch nomination and taking back control of the executive and legislative branches is only as good as the commitment to truly progressive policies and principles, something which isn’t exactly guaranteed from a party that just went all in on Hillary Clinton as its presidential nominee. In the short term, however, Neil Gorsuch can and should be resisted as an extension of Donald Trump’s and the GOP’s pro-business, anti-personal-freedom agenda. Case closed.