Round Two - November 3, 2000
As usual, I agree with E. J. on almost everything, I agree with Chris on almost nothing, and I agree with Barbara on the big questions and disagree on the immediate tactical ones (like, whom to vote for). So forgive me, guys, if I concentrate on my points of agreement and (somewhat more so) disagreement with Barbara. (Or should I say, forgive me, Barbara?)
One large question looming over this discussion, this election, and this period in history is, Why have the Democrats galumphed off to the right on so many major issues? How is it that on fiscal matters they have donned Calvin Coolidge's green eyeshade? Or that on trade many of them seem indistinguishable from your basic Goldman Sachs junior partner?
Part of the problem is that the Goldman Sachses of this world are among the party's mega-donors -- which is a function of more than just our ludicrous system of campaign finance. What it really reflects is the shift in the balance of class forces within the Democratic Party as unions have shrunk and capital -- not just as a political and social force but as a system of values -- has grown nearly beyond comprehension. Barbara and, for that matter, Ralph Nader are absolutely right that the Democrats increasingly address themselves to an ever smaller and more upscale segment of the American people. Absent organizations such as unions, millions of Americans, and not simply the poor, are voiceless -- even within the party that at its best was their political home.
The one level of government where virtually everyone has been rendered voiceless -- everyone but our friends at Goldman Sachs -- is the embryonic global government that the financial and corporate communities have constructed and from which they benefit. Rage at that system was the proximate cause of last year's Seattle World Trade Organization demonstrations, as was, I think, an even deeper rage at the triumph of capitalist values, at the commodification of damn near everything. And Ralph Nader is the tribune for both these kinds of rage; more than anyone, he personifies the spirit of Seattle.
Problem is, his campaign is actually undermining that cause.
Nader takes a kind of ultra-Newtonian attitude to the consequences of a Bush victory: whatever dismal action Bush inflicts upon us, there will be a more than equal opposite reaction from the left. If the Court repeals Roe, there will be rioting in the streets. If it continues to narrow the scope of federal civil-rights laws, it would provide "the greatest source of a revival in civic action in our generation," as Nader told me this summer. (Just as, I suppose, bombing Hanoi again would be the greatest source of a revival in antiwar action in our generation.) And repeatedly, Nader refers to the increase in membership that the Sierra Club and kindred groups experienced in the early years of the Reagan Administration, as gagging progressives sent off check after check to the Forces of Good.
But there was one set of organizations whose membership did not swell during those exciting Reagan years: unions. Anti-union Administrations invariably appoint pro-management types to oversee workers' rights, who invariably make it easier for employers to fire their workers and thwart organizing drives. But George W. Bush has vowed to do a good deal more than that. He routinely calls for curtailing the ability of unions to devote their resources to political campaigns. In the 1998 congressional elections, business outspent labor by an eleven-to-one margin; now, a friend notes, "Bush wants to make that eleven-to-nothing."
In fact, busting unions will be the chief strategic political goal of a Bush Administration. Itís only been through the election-time activity of the newly revitalized labor movement that the Democrats have come back from the debacle of the 1994 congressional election. Bush would also surely support the Team Act, a modest proposal backed by congressional Republicans that allows employers to set up their own "worker associations" to compete with genuine unions in the workplace.
The damage to the American left from any of these actions would be huge. Since John Sweeney took the helm at the AFL-CIO in 1995, labor has become the sine qua non of American progressivism -- the force behind the municipal living-wage movements, the chief advocate for universal health care, even the foremost champion of immigrant rights. Moreover, it is the one force that is bringing the voiceless into politics and into a position of some power in their workplaces, and nowhere more so than in my city, Los Angeles, where immigrant workers have become a force to be reckoned with through the efforts of the local labor movement. (Indeed, those of us who want the kind of recomposition of class forces in the Democratic Party and the electorate that Barbara rightly yearns for need only look to L.A. in the past four years to see the difference an energized labor movement can make.)
Many if not all of these union efforts would be endangered by a Bush Administration. That's why the unions are backing Gore. The Veep's record of support for organizing drives and for enhancing workers' right to organize is impressive by any standard; but the real reason why labor is pro-Gore was best stated by one former AFL-CIO official when the federation endorsed Gore last year: "If Bush wins, we're in a world of shit."
So we have in Ralph Nader the personification of the spirit of Seattle and we have in organized labor the movement that is the linchpin of the Seattle coalition -- the leading force, not just in the U.S. but in the entire world, for global social democracy. Next week, progressives have to choose between the man and the movement. They have to choose between a third party whose electoral strategy is to set the left against itself, and a movement that in the past half-decade has given progressivism a new life in many American cities and without which no progressive American future can even be envisioned.
Now, really, how hard a choice is that?
Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- November 6, 2000
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