1. Labor Day 2016 and Labor Day 1960
The headline in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press was revealing: “Trump’s trade talk resonates for some union members.” Here, in what was once the citadel of organized labor, there’s anxiety—and curiosity. How will working people vote this November? For Hillary Clinton? Donald Trump? Or perhaps another candidate?
Yet the article in the “Freep,” as it’s known locally, focused on the top-tier candidates. Indeed, it detailed a wide gap between the pro-Clinton union leadership, on the one hand, and the many pro-Trump union members, on the other. And the flashpoint was trade: “It’s a conundrum for union leaders trying to deliver the state for Democrats because the former first lady carries the heavy political baggage of being married to the man who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.”
As one pro-Trump auto worker, Donald Marshall, Jr., who works at Ford’s Sterling Axle Plant, said of the Republican nominee:
He was the first guy . . . in 20 years who identified the massive problem with our lack of manufacturing jobs. … And Clinton—she’s Mrs. NAFTA, which destroyed manufacturing jobs. There is a direct link between NAFTA and our shrinking manufacturing economy.
To be sure, the polls in Michigan do not currently show an extraordinary surge of support for Trump. Yet one United Auto Workers official told the Freep that she feared the existence of hidden Trump votes lurking among the UAW rank-and-file: “I think some people, if they are supporting him … don’t want to be seen as racist.”
Not that long ago, Detroit was, without a doubt, all-in for the Democrats. On Labor Day, 1960—also a September 5—John F. Kennedy spoke to a Labor Day rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square. And we might take a look at the size of the crowd; back then, to be sure, Detroit was the fifth-largest city in America, population 1.67 million. (Today, it’s 18th in population, having shrunk to less than 700,000.)
In that address, 56 Labor Days ago, JFK hit all the pro-union notes; he praised Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course, and then rattled off his support for key labor priorities, including collective bargaining, a higher minimum wage, and the program that would come to be called Medicare.
Moreover, JFK spoke broadly about the positive role of the labor movement in American society:
I welcome the support of working men and women everywhere and I am proud of the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. For the labor movement is people. The goals of the labor movement are the goals for all Americans and their enemies are the enemies of progress.
Of course, the “progress” that JFK cited was mostly economic progress—including, most saliently, higher wages for workers.
For its part, corporate America is rarely fond of unions, and yet back in those days, when the economy was growing fast, labor and management had often achieved a concord; in the auto industry, it was known as the Treaty of Detroit. And why not? After all, there was plenty for everybody: bigger paychecks were accompanied, in those days, by bigger profits.
Yet nothing lasts forever. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, left the White House in 1969.
2. Labor and the Democrats, Old and New
In the five decades since Johnson, the Democratic Party has changed greatly:
In the 60s and before, the Democrats were mostly a class-conscious party—although critics might prefer to call it a class-warfare party.
Yet these days, the Democrats are much different. Now they are more of a lifestyle party, coupled with a curiously high-low coalition: On the high end, in the suites, supporters include billionaires such as George Soros; on the low end, on the streets, supporters include activists such as Al Sharpton.
We can quickly observe that this high-low coalition mostly leaves out the middle—and for sure, the private-sector labor middle. That is, rich Democrats want what they want, and poor Democrats want what they want—and there’s just not enough left for anyone else.
Yet even so, the Democratic Party has been able to retain the loyalty of union leadership. This is strangely true, even as unions no longer have the loyalty of the Democratic Party. In the meantime, as we have seen, rank-and-file unionists are much iffier on the Democrats.
We can better illustrate this change in the Democratic Party if we examine the last three Democratic presidents:
Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, was from Georgia—historically an anti-union state. In the White House, Carter had nice things to say about labor every now and then, but for the most part, he regarded unions as just another Yankee special interest.
Yet at the same time, among the Democratic grassroots, a massive change was ongoing. It had begun a decade earlier, starting with the anti-Vietnam War protests of the mid-to-late 60s; during those years, a new generation of activists had gained momentum within the party. These activists defined themselves as being on the left, but they were not the Old Left; they were, instead, the New Left.
The Old Left was typically engaged in organizing workers. The Old Left was often seen wearing hard-hats, waving American flags—and it always emphasized solidarity.
By contrast, the New Left was typically engaged in demonstrating against something, usually in and around colleges. The New Left was often seen with long hair, burning draft cards, if not American flags—and it always emphasized individuality.
Whereas the Old Left was about higher wages, the New Left was about getting high.
In 1972, the New Left overcame the Old Left and nominated Sen. George McGovern for the presidency. That November, McGovern lost in a landslide, in part because many unions, horrified by McGovern and his supporters, withheld their support.
And yet despite their defeat, the McGovernites, as they were known, took over the Party, much to the chagrin of unionists.
Jimmy Carter himself was neither an Old Leftist nor a New Leftist; he was part of a fast-vanishing breed—the socially conservative Southern Democrat. Carter, not the most competent of chief executives, soon found himself unable to pacify New nor Old. Seeking re-election in 1980, he staggered to renomination as the head of a badly divided Party—and lost disastrously to Republican Ronald Reagan.
What followed in the 80s, of course, was a long period of Republican hegemony. Yet that era came to a sudden end in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the White House in a landslide.
Clinton, too, was a Southerner, but, as we all know, he was nothing like Carter. To cite just one instance, Bill and his wife Hillary both possessed solid McGovern ’72 credentials. And while Clinton was physically from Arkansas, in his head and in his heart, he was nearer to the three universities he attended—Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale.
Meanwhile, during Clinton’s presidency, the Democrats changed yet again: The McGovernite liberal life-stylists were now joined—some would say conquered—by a new contingent, from Wall Street.
These Wall Streeters were led by Clinton’s chief economic adviser, Robert Rubin, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs. Rubin, a wily bureaucratic player, assembled his own powerful policy network within the Clinton administration, overwhelming traditional leftist opposition to their pro-Wall Street agenda.
These Rubinites, as they were called, were an interesting group. They shared the McGovernites’ appreciation for liberalism on such matters as drugs and sexuality, and yet they added, as well, another element of libertarianism: a distinctly pro-market economic ideology of globalism.
Thus, by 1993, when Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress, organized labor found itself layered over, twice: first by the McGovernites, and then, too, by the Rubinites. Still, union hierarchs stuck with the Democrats, even as its membership drifted more toward the Republicans.
Two decades later, Barack Obama was supposed to be different. After all, he was from Chicago—a strong union town. And during his first presidential campaign, he hewed to pro-labor policies. As historian Julian Zelizer wrote, “Labor enthusiastically helped President Obama win the presidency in 2008, hoping his progressive message of rebuilding middle-class America would breathe new life into the country’s fading worker movement.”
Yet such hopes were dashed after Obama won the White House. As Politico observed:
On the campaign trail in 2008, he pledged to oppose the very South Korea and Colombia deals that he later sent to Congress, as well as the already-approved Central American Free Trade Agreement. He also vowed to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement to include stronger labor and environmental protections. … He never reopened NAFTA.
In other words, Obama failed to do what he had promised. He campaigned on an anti-globalism agenda, and delivered, instead, a pro-globalism agenda.
So today, unions have little to show for their support of Obama; yes, they might have gained a bureaucratic regulation or two, but such wins were overwhelmed by the onrushing tide of globalist competition that has swamped the remaining union-friendly companies. In the words of the historian Zelizer, “He wasn’t a union-based Democrat. [He appealed] to new constituencies and not old ones.”
Today, surely the hottest labor-related issue is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And once again, Obama and labor are on opposite sides. The 44th president, thoroughly allied with the Wall Street-wealthy Rubinites—he does, after all, have that library to fund!—is still pushing hard for TPP, much to the anguish of the left. Hence this angry headline in Common Dreams, a left-wing portal: “President Obama Aligns with Big Business to Smash Opposition to the TPP.”
As an aside, we can observe that it is perfectly possible to identify policy areas in which the interests of Big Business and Big Labor (what’s left of it) coincide—but trade is not such an area.
Recently, of course, in the wake of decades of stagnant wages, America has seen a substantial blowback against TPP. Under pressure from the labor-oriented Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Hillary Clinton, to the surprise of many, flip-flopped on trade, joining Trump in opposition to TPP. Or at least, that’s what she said.
Indeed, many question her sincerity, and with good reason. Indeed, just on Sunday, Obama strongly suggested that Hillary was being disingenuous–that seems like a nice way to put it–in her anti-TPP stance.
To be sure, Hillary’s 2016 campaign apparatchiks stoutly insist that yes, for sure, absolutely, she’s against TPP. But the candidate herself has been hard to pin down because, as we know, she doesn’t do press conferences any more.
Indeed, in the last month, she’s rarely been out on the hustings at all, leading The New York Times to banner this catty headline: “Where Has Hillary Clinton Been? Ask the Ultrarich”:
Mrs. Clinton has been more than accessible to those who reside in some of the country’s most moneyed enclaves and are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to see her. In the last two weeks of August, Mrs. Clinton raked in roughly $50 million at 22 fund-raising events, averaging around $150,000 an hour, according to a New York Times tally.
Still, the occasional critical piece aside, the MSM—grateful to still be working in journalism, and so even more eagerly subservient to its Establishment owners—is overwhelmingly supportive of the Rubinite globalist agenda.
For instance, there’s The Washington Post—the voice, albeit fading, of Powertown. Since 2013, the Post has been owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, a globalized company if there ever was one. We might add that Bezos is one of the new breed of plutocrats who make even the fabled Rockefellers look like paupers; today, he boasts a net worth estimated at $66.7 billion. (And Amazon, by the way, is an avowedly non-union company.)
Yet even so, despite the official hostility of the highly placed, there’s a genuine interest in what’s going on down below. Yes, in the wake of the unanticipated insurgencies of Trump and Sanders, there’s great curiosity, in the haute precincts, as to the political roots of both insurgents.
3. Democratic and Republican Elites Gaze Down Upon the Middle Class
Yes, wages have been stagnating, the rich have been enriching, and inequality has been skyrocketing—and it’s been happening for a long time. And yet, only recently have the elites chosen to take notice.
A big source of this of this willful ignorance—let’s be blunt here—has been disdain, even outright hostility, toward Middle America.
As we have seen, a few decades ago, the liberal elites—top Democrats and their MSM handmaidens, joined by more than a few silk-stocking Republicans—adopted a harsh view of blue-collar Americans. That is, they were deemed to be mostly a bunch of Archie Bunkers, more likely than not to be bigots, racists, and homophobes. Specifically, they were judged to be guilty of hostility to abortion rights, civil rights, gay rights, immigrants’ rights, marijuana rights, and women’s rights. And oh, yes, many industrial unions—most notoriously, the coal-oriented United Mine Workers—were regarded as irreparable enemies of the environment. (By contrast, the white collar unions—almost all of them representing teachers and other government employees—are held in far higher regard by top Democrats.)
Yet nowadays, because of Trump and Sanders, pondering the fate of the middle class is all the rage. The Washington Post recently headlined a piece, “Everyone is reading books trying to explain Trump voters.” From the point of view of the elite, we might consider this new study program to be the equivalent of visiting strange exotic creatures at the zoo.
Yet for all its newfound curiosity, the Post, possessed as it is by Bezos, is also fully possessed by globalism. The newspaper has published dozens of editorials and op-eds in praise of TPP; as a sample, here’s one from August 20: “Obama rightfully stands firm on the Pacific trade deal.”
Perhaps one might ask: Is there a risk that the Post will alienate its blue-collar readership? And the answer, of course, is that the Post has little, if any, blue-collar readership. So we can see: problem solved. So long as Bezos is happy with the paper’s editorial slant, the “Bezos Post” will be happy to continue editorializing.
Of course, some will insist that even long before Bezos, the Post was full of politically correct prejudices. And by that, we mean, if the “old” prejudices are now forbidden, a new prejudice against the middle class—perhaps unconscious, perhaps not—is both permitted and indulged.
In a scathing piece at Breitbart News, headlined “Washington Post: Import Foreign Workers to Replace Spoiled Americans,” Neil Munro brilliantly exposed the Post’s snobbish class bias, in which the newspaper extolled immigrants, legal or not, at the expense of native-born workers.
We might even expand upon this point: to ordinaryAmericans, immigrants are a source of wage-competition; yet from the exalted perspective of Georgetown and Dupont Circle, immigrants are a source of delightful new restaurants and docile domestic servants.
Okay, so that’s the Democrats, including their MSM enablers; now, let’s cross the aisle and look at the Republicans.
The Republican Party, of course, has been traditionally aloof from, even hostile to, labor—although, of course, GOP officials would insist that they are only against organized labor.
Still, for as long as anyone can remember—one would have to remember back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to think otherwise—most Republicans have faithfully followed the lead of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on economic issues.
We can immediately stipulate here that there are worse economic agendas—many of them, in fact—that a party could follow. And yet it’s also possible to do better–to take a more comprehensive view, encompassing the interests of workers, as well as owners. In the meantime, in 2016, it’s readily apparent that people who celebrate Labor Day as Labor Day are likely to be on the opposite side of the barricades from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Yet even so, something interesting has been happening: many blue collars, even unionized blue collars, have, in fact, been voting Republican. And why is this? Let us count the ways, starting with taxes. And then we can add: crime, guns, welfare, affirmative action, environmentalism, and on and on, till we get to … liberal smugness, even arrogance.
And now, mostly because of Trump, we can add two huge issues: illegal immigration and trade. Which is to say, all of a sudden, the GOP has a politically potent platform to put before the folks of, say, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Alas, it’s still not hard to find Republicans and conservatives expressing opinions that would be abhorrent to blue collars—if the blues were ever to find out about them.
For example, more than a few GOP intellectuals still harbor a politically toxic affection for Herbert Hoover, the Republican president who presided over an eight-fold increase in unemployment during his four years in the White House.
For those with fuzzy memories of the 31st president, we can sum up America’s reaction to him this way: when he ran for re-election in 1932, he lost catastrophically. In fact, he garnered just 39.6 percent of the national vote, carrying a mere six of 48 states. That was the verdict of those who knew Hoover, and Hooverism, best—namely, his contemporary fellow citizens.
Yet even so, atop their ivory towers, some on the right still carry a torch for the man. Back in 2011, for example, National Review lengthily extolled Hoover’s supposed wisdom, and followed up with further paeans of praise in 2012 and 2016. Here, we can add as an aside: it seems that some intellectuals measure their intellectualism by the degree to which they embrace unpopular positions; perhaps they think that they are proving a point, to a handful of like-minded onlookers, about their own intellectual virtuosity.
Fortunately for the Republican cause, not many blue collars read National Review. And of those few who do, all of them must realize that Trump is utterly dismissive of the magazine and its opinions. (To be sure, the feeling is mutual.)
Okay, so that’s the Republicans: From the point of view of a blue-collar worker, let’s politely call the GOP a work in progress. To be sure, today’s Republicans are vastly preferable to the Obama-Hillary Democrats—the green agenda of de-industrializing economy is enough, by itself, to disqualify the Dems. Yet for all the reasons stated, Republicans need only hop over a very low bar.
Yet on this Labor Day, we can point to three significant signs of hope for blue-collar Republicanism:
First, the presidential election is close; Trump the political newbie is neck-and-neck with Clinton, the billion-dollar baby, the Queen of the Rigged Game. Indeed, if Clinton ever emerges from her fundraising, she will probably have to campaign in some of those industrialized states that Democrats have taken for granted, lo these many years.
Second, the once-hegemonic spell of the globalists within the Republican Party has been broken. To be sure, plenty of globalists still abide within the GOP—and among currently elected officials, they are the vast majority. But at the same time, now there’s a new nationalist-populist wing of the party that’s a force to be reckoned with. And this nationalist-populist wing, fueled by the Trumpian influx, is certain to survive, no matter who wins this November. Thus, we can predict a healthy, if contentious, debate between the two factions, as the interests of labor, as well as capital, are properly weighed and considered.
Third, close to home, as an intriguing straw in the wind, we can recall that in July, Breitbart News traveled to Philadelphia for the Democratic convention, engaging in a lively dialogue with Sanders supporters. After all, the Trump-minded and the Sanders-minded both share a common suspicion of the globalist agenda.
Speaking to the hipsters at Vice TV, Breitbart’s Matt Boyle declared in Philadelphia, “I think in many cases we agree more with the Bernie Sanders people [more] than we agree with establishment Republicans.”
Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos added, “Bernie people are our people.”
To be sure, a few impromptu conversations do not a firm alliance make; many issues, starting with immigration, need to be resolved.
Yet everything has to start somewhere: This year, in person, as well as in print, Breitbart News has helped launch an exciting new conversation between disaffected Democrats and disaffected Republicans—of which there are many.
And those are all encouraging thoughts.