Occupy May Day. Financial District, San Francisco, California 2012. Flickr/davitydave. Some rights reserved.In their book, Deeply Divided, McAdam and Kloos argue that the bipartisan and centrist post-World War II political period was simply an anomaly driven by a relative lack of social movements, McCarthyism, and reduced income inequality.
Using historical time series data, the authors attempt to demonstrate that political polarization, such as the United States finds itself presently mired in, is the Congressional modus operandi and stands in stark contrast to the post-war period advocacy of their median voter theory. While I agree with the authors that the post-World War II political period did find itself at the confluence of several events that mitigated social movements and therefore political polarization, I contend that this is not simply an anomaly but a predictable cycle, reinforced by World War II but driven by the underlying power struggle between labor and capital.
To demonstrate, allow me to fill in some gaps. McAdam and Kloos explain the relative rise of capital and the corresponding fall of labor well. I’ve personally watched the last labor stronghold, unions in the federal work force, become poisoned by the policies advanced by capital’s staunchest ally, the Republican Party. But as the current social elite work to remake the political and economic system in capital’s image, they have unknowingly or possibly greedily set the stage for labor’s rebirth. In other words, by excluding labor from the political and economic process, capital has set a course for the revival of the labor movement.
Regardless of the social movement lens we choose to view the reduced state of labor within the United States (strain/grievance, resource mobilization, political process, or cultural), the result seems inevitable. Cries for liveable wages, the previous success of labor unions in mobilizing people and resources, the exclusion of labor from economic and political processes, and powerful symbols and ideologies (think of the 99% and anti-globalization movements) all point to the revitalized opportunity for a resurgent domestic labor movement. Furthermore, if a social movement is “a conscious, concerted, and sustained effort by ordinary people to change some aspect of their society by using extra-institutional means” as Goodwin & Jasper argued in their Social Movements Reader 2015, then labor is ready for a social movement explosion. The match, I argue, is for the Democratic Party to capitalize on the inevitable swing in the pendulum and catalyze the various fragmented labor groups into a political and social force.
And by that, I don’t mean a passing mention in a rally here or there. I mean a serious offensive against capital, which despite the masquerade that money sees no color, has found a serious home in red political coffers and states. Which is both an irony and a tragedy. Despite the South’s defection to the Republican Party under Nixon, social programs were originally aimed at appeasing the contingencies of Dixiecrats in the South where poverty levels continue to remain high. By re-embracing the spirit of the New Deal coalition of labor workers, Democrats could easily recapture voters in the Rust Belt, whose calls of party abandonment by the Democrats coupled with a significant loss of jobs due to outsourcing, have found themselves strange bedfellows with anti-labor Republicans.
Finally, while many people will attribute the loss of jobs to mechanization and outsourcing, it is crucial to remember that labor and capital are permanently tied together. Too much job displacement disrupts the money cycle, which means less consumption and eventually less corporate profit. In other words, capital needs labor, even in the face of a mechanical revolution. Initially, revitalizing the labor movement increases the value of jobs that can’t be outsourced internationally.
Additionally, it is a much better focus of domestic resources than fighting outsourcing directly. If Democrats want to win back seats in Congress and eventually the White House, then they must continue to push for social and economic equality. And that starts, in earnest, with countering the growing dominance of capital.
Goodwin, J., & Jasper, J. e. (2015). The Social Movements Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
McAdam, D., & Kloos, K. (2014). Deeply Divided. New York: Oxford University Press.