Not long after Trump’s election, a number of liberal commentators wrote essentially the same article that called for the Democrats to return to their blue-collar roots. Michael Moore, who is haunted by the memory of the good old days in Flint when workers had well-paying jobs, got a jump on fellow liberals by predicting a Trump victory made possible by the defection of “Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room.”
Also ahead of the curve was Thomas Frank who wrote on March 7th: “The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.”
Catching up with Moore and Frank, Robert Reich wrote on November 13th: “The Democratic Party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party 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.”
One might ask Reich when exactly did the Democratic Party represent the working class. For most on the left, that would mean FDR’s New Deal and perhaps LBJ’s Great Society that was seen as building on the New Deal.
Essentially, Moore, Frank and Reich urge the Democrats to go back to its roots if it wants to win elections in the future. Bernie Sanders embodies these hopes with many rebuking the party leadership for torpedoing his candidacy. They insist that Sanders would have cleaned Trump’s clock or words to that effect.
This begs the question of how painful losing an election was to someone like Hillary Clinton who along with her husband is worth $110 million. The last Democrat before her to lose an election to a rightwing monster was John Kerry–the richest Democrat ever to run for president and worth twice as much as the Clintons. Despite losing the election, he remained a powerful player in Washington politics. By the time you become the Democratic Party candidate for president, economic insecurity would have ceased to be a problem long ago. That was why so many people laughed at Hillary Clinton’s claim that she and her husband were “dead broke” when he left the White House.
I would argue that when you have fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars like these people, it tends to determine your ideology. If capitalism worked so well for them, why can’t it work so well for everybody else? If that is true for the candidates, it is a thousand times true for major donors like George Soros who has convened a powwow of rich bastards like himself to consider changes to the Democratic Party that will help it become a winner once again. I always get a laugh out of Soros’s duplicity. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Working America, the vote corralling organization launched by the AFL-CIO, at the same time his currency manipulation has ruined entire nations. This is not to speak of his warnings about climate change that don’t seem to preclude investing in coal and fracking.
As a Marxist, I have often been described as unrealistic but is there anything more unrealistic than expecting the Democratic Party to be taken over by Bernie Sanders and those CP’ers and DSA’ers who are carrying out deep entry tactics in the party? I often wonder if these comrades have really thought much about the Democratic Party’s history.
While having such knowledge probably wouldn’t make much difference to those who see voting for Democrats as a tactical question, I thought it might be useful to write about the Democratic Party using the tools of historical materialism and to hone in on the question of its relationship to working people. Although I mostly regret the time I spent in the Trotskyist movement, I did benefit from the Marxist education I received there and particularly the analysis of American history from George Novack, who despite his leaden prose and a certain amount of reductionism bordering on vulgar Marxism, was most astute at debunking the hagiography around FDR.
I am not sure how many posts I will be writing about the DP and the working class, but these three will surely be included:
- From Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson: I will be starting with this today. Although some might question what bearing Jackson has on today’s DP, I will argue that many on the left still labor under the illusion that he was the working man’s best friend.
- FDR: Obviously the icon of the liberal left and the president people like Moore and Reich consider the model for pro-working class governance.
- Post-FDR: a look at JFK, the first “New Democrat” and those that followed in his footsteps.
If FDR is Michael Moore’s poster child for the Democratic Party,, at least one left historian hearkens back to the very first Democrat who called the White House his home. In 2005 Wilentz wrote a biography that was meant to refurbish Jackson’s reputation in more or less the same manner that Ron Chernow tried to do with his Alexander Hamilton biography, a friend of the rich who for some ungodly reason is now being celebrated on Broadway as proof that immigrants can make it in the USA.
For Wilentz, this meant repeating arguments made originally on Jackson’s behalf by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who regarded the architect of Cherokee removal and defender of slavery as pro-labor. While it is true that the Democrats were more partial to the early labor movement’s opposition to the eleven-hour workday and the expansion of voting rights, Jackson’s party was hardly one to serve as model for progressive change.
In 1946, Harry Braverman wrote an article (as Harry Frankel) for the Trotskyist press titled “The Jackson Period in American History” that put the pro-labor orientation of Andrew Jackson into context.
The original home of this political art was in the Northern wing of the planters’ Democratic Party – an auxiliary in enemy territory. It fought the bourgeoisie through sections of the urban petty-bourgeois and proletarian masses, who were mobilized by means of democratic and even anti-capitalist slogans. The planting class, resting on unorganized, unrepresented, almost unmentioned slave labor, could afford to countenance reforms which struck against the Northern bourgeoisie. The ten-hour day for workers, extension of the vote to the proletariat, attacks upon the factory system and other such agitations, typical of the Jackson period, represented no direct economic threat to the planters. During the Jackson period the planters put on their best democratic garb … in the North. But during that very same time, barbarous slave legislation multiplied on the statute books in the South. The concessions in the North were part of the slaveholder system of maintaining national power. John Randolph, the erratic phrasemaker of the planter bloc in Congress, gave clear expression to this strategy. “Northern gentlemen,” he taunted, “think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves!”
As the needs of the “planting class” grew stronger, the Democratic Party became the political instrument of slavery and utterly indifferent to the needs of Northern workers who had by the 1850s become partial to the abolitionist cause. Despite the earlier plutocratic tendencies of the Whigs, it was a faction of the party led by Abraham Lincoln that launched the Republican Party whose record on labor struggles was mixed at best according to Mark Lause. Andrew Johnson was a perfect example of the Democratic Party of that time. Despite being Lincoln’s vice president, he was ready to retreat on Reconstruction while Lincoln’s corpse was still warm.
Like Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland was a forerunner of the shitty centrist politics that is responsible for Republican Party victories today. As is the case today, this was a candidate who defiantly defended the class interests of the big bourgeoisie.
A two-term president from 1885 through 1897, Cleveland was a labor-hating shithook. He was aligned with the so-called Bourbon Democrats who were the Democratic Leadership Council of their day. These were politicians firmly wedded to free market economics of the sort that we call neoliberalism today except back them there was nothing “neo” about them back then. Like Thomas Friedman or Paul Krugman, the Bourbons were opposed to Trump-style protectionism. Despite the 130 years that separate us, it seems that the same issues keep cropping up.
In 1894 Cleveland intervened in the Pullman workers strike that for the time was as pivotal a confrontation as Reagan’s with the airline controllers. The workers were organized in the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs. When George Pullman refused to recognize the union, Debs called for a boycott of Pullman cars that was very effective, costing the company $80 million. This led to Cleveland ordering the army to break the strike and then charging Debs with violating the injunction against the strikers. Debs served a six-month prison term for defying the government. At the time of his arrest, Debs was not a socialist but during his time in prison, he read the works of Karl Marx. After his release in 1895, he became America’s best-known socialist and as such ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. Any resemblance between him and Rich Trumka is purely coincidental.
Upon being sentenced, Debs issued a proclamation to the ARU that should remind you of what labor radicalism once sounded like. The fact that Bernie Sanders can keep a picture of Eugene V. Debs on his wall is enough to make you sick to your stomach. From the proclamation:
I need not remind you, comrades of the American Railway Union, that our order in the pursuit of the right was confronted with a storm of opposition such as never beat upon a labor organization in all time. Its brilliant victory on the Great Northern and its gallant championship of the unorganized employees of the Union Pacific had aroused the opposition of every railroad corporation in the land.
To crush the American Railway Union was the one tie that united them all in the bonds of vengeance; it solidified the enemies of labor into one great association, one organization which, by its fabulous wealth, enabled it to bring into action resources aggregating billions of money and every appliance that money could purchase. But in this supreme hour the American Railway Union, undaunted, put forth its efforts to rescue Pullman’s famine-cursed wage slaves from the grasp of an employer as heartless as a stone, as remorseless as a savage and as unpitying as an incarnate fiend. The battle fought in the interest of starving men, women and children stands forth in the history of Labor’s struggles as the great “Pullman Strike.’ It was a battle on the part of the American Railway Union fought for a cause as holy as ever aroused the courage of brave men; it was a battle in which upon one side were men thrice armed because their cause was just, but they fought against the combined power of corporations which by the use of money could debauch justice, and, by playing the part of incendiary, bring to their aid the military power of the government, and this solidified mass of venality, venom and vengeance constituted the foe against which the American Railway Union fought Labor’s greatest battle for humanity.
Like Cleveland, Wilson was a two-term president from 1913-1921. Best known as a “progressive” and an internationalist (ie. imperialist), Wilson’s relationship to the working class is a bit of a blur to most people, including me before writing this article. Under the influence of the Progressive movement, Wilson did support a much more enlightened policy than Cleveland. In 1912 the Democrat Party’s draft campaign program called for all federal employees to be provided a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and six-day workweek, and health and safety measures. It also called for the prohibition of child labor, safeguards for female workers and a retirement program.
The Rich Trumka of his day, AFL president Samuel Gompers (there was no CIO yet), developed close ties to the White House. Like LBJ, Wilson campaigned as someone who would keep the USA out of war. But when Wilson betrayed the voters by entering WWI, Gompers agreed to serve on the Labor Advisory Board and supported a no-strike pledge just as the Communist Party did during WWII. Despite inflation eating away at workers’ wages, the AFL stayed true to the Democratic Party.
This was not the case for the IWW, the SP or the Communists who were hounded by the FBI for practicing sedition. Not relying exclusively on Gompers’s class collaborationism, Wilson established a Committee on Public Information (CPI) that promoted WWI to the American public through newspapers, radio, movies and other forms of communication. It recruited 75,000 “Four Minute Men” who volunteered to speak at social gatherings on behalf of the inter-imperialist rivalry that cost millions of lives.
Perhaps you have heard of Edward Bernays, who directed the CPI’s Latin American bureau. Bernays is widely regarded as the founder of modern public relations. In 1928 Bernays wrote a book titled “Propaganda” that has probably been studied by the likes of both Republican and Democratic campaign managers, State Department officials and other paid lackeys of the ruling class for the better part of 90 years. Bernays wrote:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
In my next post, I will have a whack at FDR.