Prisoners of the American Election

Thanks to one of my favorite podcasts, I recently read Prisoners of the American Dream, Mike Davis’ 1986 book which examines US working class history building up to Reaganism. Davis sets out to explain why socialism never gained a true foothold in the US, and relatedly why much of the labor movement has played a contradictory and at times conservative role within our national politics and the Democratic Party itself.

The TL;DR version of his argument is that after an upsurge of militancy among workers in the early 20th century, a period followed in which corporate power accomodated itself to labor peace (excluding, however, many jobs in which Black people, women and immigrants labored such as domestic work, health care, and agriculture). The truce was called off in the latter part of the century as the forces of US capital and empire and a rising right-wing political movement grew intent on destroying the labor movement. Unions were caught completely unprepared for the battle — weakened internally by many factors, most primarily by racism — and rapidly devolved into a less-than-junior partner within the political party where they coalesce (or, depending on your view, are held captive).

The book is largely a historic narrative, offering many details about the actors involved in various stages that lends a sense of a plot and character to the storytelling. But Davis is also rigorous, building the drama on an architecture of quantitative data about the US economy, demographics, and societal political attitudes in order illustrate his points, as well as his predictions for the future, many of which are uncannily close to what has taken place in the nearly 4 decades since he wrote it.

In the book’s Epilogue, Davis outlines several insights and lessons that feel extremely relevant today, among them a critique of the left’s approach to electoralism in the 1970s and 1980s:

The ascendancy of electoralism on the left, far from being an expression of new popular energies or mobilizations, was, on the contrary, a symptom of the decline of the social movements of the 1960s, accompanied by the organic crisis of the trade-union and community-service bureaucracies. Rather than being a strategy for unifying mass struggles and grassroots organization on a higher programmatic level, electoralism was either imagined as a substitute for quotidian mass organizing, or it was inflated as an all-powerful catalyst for movement renewal.

An obvious link can be made here to Bernie Sanders’ most recent campaign. While the left did aspire to “unify mass struggles and grassroots organization” in Bernie’s campaign, I suspect that it became easy for many of us to confuse the campaign with “an all-powerful catalyst for movement renewal.” And although Bernie gained support from many sectors of society, as in the case of insurgent candidates before him the actual movements that backed him were not strong enough to overcome the obstacles in their path and the divisions within the party, nor was the campaign itself positioned to win over an element of the Democratic Party establishment that might have been an ally: unions.

This is also why Davis’ analysis is so helpful in explaining our current predicament (though it differs from the context of his writing in 1986 becaue of the sustained upsurge of movements taking place over the last few years). Other than unions, most of today’s movements are not institutional players in the Democatic Party. This “outsider” status has given them a refreshing degree of freedom and independence, evidenced in their willingness to confront the powerful, to make demands, and to hold elected officials accountable no matter their partisan stripes. It also gives them an interdependence that might prove fruitful in the years to come.

Not content with direct action tactics on various targets, however, many of these movements are simultaneously engaging in electoral projects, working an inside/outside strategy that aims to avoid the pitfalls of believing the work is over once the right candidate gets elected. If today’s movements continue their current growth and their demands gain even greater traction, they will likely be invited to play a larger institutional role in the party, and they will have to consider carefully first whether or not they should, and if so, how.

It is also possible that they will encounter a situation that labor movement knows well: the pressure and responsibility that leaders feel to deliver a victory in a situation in which the movement does not yet have enough power to impose its demands completely. Unions’ cautious approach to electoral insurgencies and their legislative work can be informed by this same calculus: that it is better to get something than nothing. The responsibility is also one that unions are familiar with in the resolution of workplace fights. The very existence of a union contract is a victory, an incredible concession that workers have extracted from management over time, a set of rules that the boss has to follow — but is it not also fundamentally a compromise?

For many US unions, this pressure can be complicated by having a membership that (with the exception of newly-organized workers) is not so much based on workers’ ideological decision to affiliate with a movement espousing particular goals, but rather based on having been selected by the boss to work at a union shop. It is difficult to think of other social movements in our world whose principal opponent gets to determine the composition of their base.

Unions with strong new membership orientation practices, political education programming, and effective participatory organizing models — a school of struggle — can and do make up for these disadvantages, but that outcome is far from a given. And as Davis discusses in the book, workers’ ideas are shaped by a variety factors, many of which — like racism — directly undermine solidarity across lines of difference. There is no substitute for organization, but such organization does not automatically equate to a countervaling understanding of the world; it must be intentionally developed.

Anyone in the US labor movement and left hoping for a more militant, confrontational, and politically-independent union movement would do well to study the histories and understand these dynamics if they hope to change them. We would also do well to remember that while electoral work is important in setting the terrain for organizing, it is different from building a movement. On both fronts, Prisoners of the American Dream is a strong intervention that can help to unlock our thinking and spur us toward a different horizon.