Why is “Laborism” an increasing influence within the Democratic Party even though union density continues to decline?


Rich Yeselson over at Crooked Timber:

A few days ago, Matt Yglesias wrote me an email which asked a great question about American politics and the seeming movement to the left of the Democratic Party. In the wake of Bernie Sander’s landslide victory in New Hampshire over Hillary Clinton, Matt’s question seems even more pressing and interesting. With his permission, I quote it below:

What’s your theory as to how the labor-liberal forces inside the Democratic coalition seem stronger than every (Hillary is now against TPP and facing a fierce challenge from a socialist) even as actual labor unions seem weaker than ever. This is 180 degrees the opposite of the trajectory that I and everyone else were forecasting 10 years ago where either there would be a labor revival (card check, etc.) or else Dems would drift right without an anchor.

Here’s how I responded to Matt, with a bit of editing and revision to convert it from private e-mail prose into something a bit more formal:

One should note, too, regarding the context of your question, Obama’s recent executive orders, which have benefited millions of workers. And, of course, the Sanders campaign. It’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it? I think it’s a case of something about which Marx would have been skeptical: a powerful cultural superstructure constructed on top of an emaciated base which, in turn, becomes grounded in a nascent materiality of its own. Even theorists of the base-superstructure divide like Raymond Williams did not imagine that “residual” cultural formations would influence “emergent” ones without themselves passing through a “dominant” ideological stage—but that seems to have happened here in the case of the “old unionism” presaging a “new laborism” atop a weakened contemporary labor movement. So unions and a kind of union ideology have spawned this laborism even as labor’s own political, cultural and economic power continues to wane. Unions have succeeded not in organizing a greater percentage of workers into union members, but, instead, in organizing a significant sub-sector of the educated elite into becoming advocates for labor: academics and writers, and the students that become not only academics and writers, but also go on to work directly for unions. We also see this dynamic in the organizing drives taking place throughout the “new media” landscape, something I wrote about in TNR last year:

For about 30 years, a goal of the most sophisticated sectors of the labor movement has been to import the talents and commitment of the college educated middle class onto union staffs, and to export, via programs like Union Summer, the Organizing Institute, and organizing campaigns on college campuses, the ethos of unionism to colleges and other precincts of the professional liberal elite. One milestone in this effort, for example was the union-intellectuals conference at Columbia in 1996, for example, which called for an explicit alliance between leftist intellectuals and unions and featured keynote addresses by Betty Friedan, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West and John Sweeney, then president of the AFL-CIO. And this strategy worked!

More here.