Category Archives: revitalizing the left

an agenda for the dignity of work

Sen. Sherrod Brown’s theme of the “dignity of work” is powerful and important, for these four reasons:

1. A basic cause of unacceptable inequality is the worsening position of workers versus the owners of capital. That shows up in statistics on the share of income …

… and also in less tangible ways, such as a growing cultural and spatial distance between workers and investors and the rising deference or obsequiousness to the rich

2. Work, in the broadest sense—making things of value—is one basis of a good life for human beings. It is spoiled when work is alienated (split between decision-makers who don’t actually do anything and laborers who make no decisions) or replaced entirely by automation and AI. The availability of good work is probably shrinking and is certainly threatened by the next wave of automation.

3. The dignity of work can be a unifying theme. Yes, who has dignified work depends on gender, race, class, and age, so addressing this issue requires attention to inequality and difference. But people in very different social positions share a sense that dignified work is threatened.

4. Workers who are organized (in unions or the functional equivalents of unions) gain countervailing political power along with dignity. I’m of the school that it doesn’t matter much which policies Democratic candidates endorse, because their policy options are highly constrained once they’re in office. It matters how power is distributed. Strengthening workers’ organizations addresses the third level of power (“Who decides policies?”) rather than the first or second levels of power (What do particular people get? and “What policies are in place?”).

[For related arguments, see Harry C. Boyte, “The Shutdown Taught Us About the Dignity of Work: An Unanticipated Civics Lesson, Courtesy of President Trump” (The Nation, Jan 29) and Albert Dzur, “Teaching Citizenship” (The Boston Review, Jan. 30).]

Sen. Brown has a plan entitled “Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America.” I think it’s an important contribution, but it’s mostly about raising pay per hour and improving the bargaining position of unions. We could add to his agenda, recognizing that some people just aren’t going to be unionized, that AI threatens employment for all, and that work faces crises of quality as well as pay and hours.

I can only offer vague thoughts because I am insufficiently informed, but I would consider:

  1. Federal support for associations of workers who would have a very hard time unionizing. Domestic workers are the prime case, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance is the leading example. When organized, domestic workers can advocate for favorable government policies, but they can also provide education, training, insurance, and other services for their members and speak to a range of audiences. In practice, they use their voice to advocate for their patients and clients as well as for themselves, and they demonstrate a concern for the quality of work as well as pay. I am not sure what federal policies would help them most, but possibly they should be eligible for grants for their service functions to subsidize their organizing efforts.
  2. A new look at accountability policies in a wide range of fields, from teaching and policing to medicine, to ensure that the drive to measure inputs and outcomes doesn’t ruin the quality of professional work. Often these accountability measures are driven by federal policy.
  3. A new look at the federal civil service, with an eye to making the jobs that are directly controlled by the national government as rewarding and substantive as possible.
  4. Funding for R&D that uses new technology to enhance and expand work (not to replace work).
  5. Federal programs modeled on the EPA’s now-defunct Community Action for a Renewed Environment CARE) that support a range of stakeholders who work on common problems. Typically, some of the stakeholders are paid to work full-time on these problems; others use some of their paid time to help out; and others are volunteers. For instance, in an environmental project, some participants may be government regulators, some may be local business people, and some may be unpaid activists. It’s important to see and name them all as working.

the state versus petit-bourgeois white America

Citizens experience the state in the form of people–teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses and doctors. These may be public employees or just subsidized by public funds, as when doctors get reimbursed by Medicare or professors get some of their salary from federal financial aid and grants. They help, serve, and protect; they also advise, cajole, assess and select, and discipline.

If we expand distributive justice (taxing richer people and spending the money on “government”), then relatively needy people will be confronted with human representatives of the state. These interactions will be friction points, sites of cultural conflict and resistance.

This is a well-known problem that has been discussed for a century. Traditionally, it has a strong class dimension: the state sends mostly college-educated people to both help and discipline working-class people. The state represents norms and ways of life embraced by the dominant social class. (I think this was even the case in the USSR.) In the US, the friction also has a racial dimension, even though white people have always been recipients of government support and surveillance in the US.

I think four strategies have often been proposed to reduce the friction:

  1. Make the state more demographically representative of the people it relates to. For instance, work to enhance the racial diversity of public school teachers, especially when their students are people of color.
  2. Design programs and laws–also train the “street-level bureaucrats” who deliver services–to minimize unnecessary moral superiority, reduce patronizing attitudes, and shift the balance to helping people versus disciplining them. For instance, educators are taught to be sensitive to their students’ backgrounds; social workers have norms against being judgmental.
  3. Organize or train the recipients of government services to stand up for their own rights and values.
  4. Expand cash transfers and other detached forms of redistribution that don’t involve monitoring and changing behavior (as education, policing, public health, and social work do).

None of these strategies has ever been fully successful. But we now see a new dynamic. A significant segment of the population identifies strongly as middle class and culturally mainstream. These are white, Christian people who may have attended college (often without completing BA degrees) and who may own small businesses or work in white-collar settings. They live in smaller towns, exurbs, and rural settings that represent a vision of respectability.

Traditionally, they identified with the state, particularly since they were very well represented in Congress, the state legislatures, and the military. Their typical question was whether or not to spend money on the government, which might waste their tax dollars but might also protect their national security, might genuinely help them without a lot of lecturing (think of agricultural extension workers or locally-controlled public schools), and would discipline other people.

Now this class—white, non-urban, Christian, and petit-bourgeois rather than working class–is in trouble. Obesity, opioid abuse, and suicide are rising to the point that their life-expediencies are falling. In some cases, their communities are losing population. Their traditional economic roles are in peril, and they’re told that their children must live and learn differently to retain their class position.

“Mortality by Cause for White Non-Hispanics Ages 45–54,” from Anne Case & Angus Deaton, PNAS December 8, 2015 112 (49)

The very bad trends depicted in this figure are concentrated among white people without college experience, but those with some college show increasing mortality. It’s only people with BAs or more who have escaped that pattern.

The state arrives to tell them to eat different foods, not to smoke, to raise their children differently. It may seem that the state disagrees with the messages that they hear in church, which they attend to live good lives. The state tells them to send their kids to the state university if they want to stay in the middle class. Their taxes and tuition dollars will pay for people who relate to them as the state has traditionally related to the poor and working class. Professors and student-affairs workers will steer their kids into a new culture that the coastal bourgeoisie has created. From the same universities come the k-12 teachers, nurses, and others who lecture them back in their own communities about food and exercise and carbon emissions. (Here I am indebted to Kathy Cramer, among others.)

When asked whether the government should “do more” (1 on the scale below) or “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private business” (5 on the scale), white men have traditionally tilted against government. However, they caught up with white women in their support for government between 2014 and 2016, perhaps because they needed it more. We don’t have 2018 data yet, but we know they voted for Trump that year. This is consistent with needing government but not liking it.

The conflict between petit-bourgeois white people and the state is gendered, because many of the front-line representatives of the government are female, and many of the people with the most counter-normative behavior are men. The conflict is also racial in two respects. First, white, middle class people traditionally distinguished themselves from Americans who needed government aid and guidance, whom they viewed disproportionately as people of color; but that distinction is erased if the middle class also needs help. Second, representatives of the state–especially those who appear on TV–look at least somewhat more racially diverse than white communities do. At the very top of the state structure for eight years was a Black man.

I think these tensions are at the heart of current US politics. Focusing on them challenges both the “economic insecurity” and the “racial resentment” explanations of the 2016 election and its aftermath. A somewhat different premise is that lower-middle-class rural and exurban white Americans are now experiencing the state roughly as poor urban people are used to experiencing it. They need it but don’t like it, because it is always telling them they must change.

I’m not saying that most of them are responding appropriately or wisely, but we might want to dust off our tools for repairing the welfare state: make sure the government employs people who talk and look like those it affects, train them for sensitivity, organize those most affected by the state to push back, and try to shift to cash redistribution instead of invasive behavior-modification.

See also: why the white working class must organizeresponding to the deep story of Trump voterswhat do the Democrats offer the working class?

the weakening bond between millennials and the middle class

(New York City) In lieu of a substantive post here today, I’ll link to a post of mine on the Biden Forum (the blog of the Biden Foundation), entitled “the weakening bond between millennials and the middle class.”

I begin:

Americans born between 1985 and 2004, known as “millennials,” are numerous enough that their generation will dominate the electorate for decades to come. Political commentators often depict millennials as egalitarian, activist, and relatively well-educated, and thus poised to support a middle-class economic agenda. But that portrait describes just a minority of the generation. In truth, many millennials are far from reaching the middle class, are skeptical about government, and are disengaged as citizens.

At the Biden Forum, I reflect on what that may mean for politics and policy.

timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

Two years after organizing the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin made the following arguments in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement” (Commentary, 2/39, Feb. 1965). By calling these points “timely,” I don’t mean that they are necessarily correct; I mean that they are usefully provocative in our moment.

1. Racial justice is impossible without a new economy, because the current economy is too unequal and too limited to accommodate many newly enfranchised people. For example, there are too few decent jobs, and the people who have them will hold onto them unless the supply is expanded.

My quarrel with … moderates is that they do not even envision radical changes; their admonitions of moderation are, for all practical purposes, admonitions to the Negro to adjust to the status quo, and are therefore immoral.

2. The goal is not to confront racist attitudes (which would assume that, deep down, racists and hypocrites can have benign motives). The goal is to change institutions; attitudinal change will follow from that.

[Meanwhile, a second group] pursues what I call a ‘no-win’ policy. Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts–by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flaggelants, they may gleefully applaud (though not really agreeing with) Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes–a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions–social, political, and economic institutions–which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let those institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

3. Radical change does not require violence.

[The] term revolutionary, as I have been using it, does not connote violence; it refers to the qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions, more or less rapidly, to the point where the social and political structure which they comprised can no longer be said to be the same.

4. But to change institutions does require power.

There is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.

5. In a democracy, power requires numbers–indeed, a majority of the whole electorate.

A handful of Negroes, acting alone, could integrate a lunch counter by strategically locating their bodies so as directly to interrupt the operation of a proprietor’s will; their numbers were relatively unimportant. … But in arriving at a political decision, numbers and organizations are crucial, especially for the economically disenfranchised.

6. Coalition politics is inevitable, and it implies the right kind of compromise.

[The] effectiveness of a swing vote depends solely on ‘other’ votes. It derives its power from them. … Thus coalitions are inescapable, no matter how tentative they may be. … The issue is which coalition to join and how to make it responsive to your program. Necessarily there will be compromise. But the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones. The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense.

7. The coalition must include everyone with reasonably aligned interests so that they can marginalize their real opponents, the Donald Trumps of the day.

It has become fashionable in some no-win Negro circles to decry the white liberal as the main enemy (his hypocrisy is what sustains racism). [Thus] the Negro is left in majestic isolation, except for a tiny band of fervent white initiates. But the objective fact is that [Dixecrat Mississippi Senator James] Eastland and [GOP Presidential nominee Barry] Goldwater are the main enemies–they and opponents of civil rights, of the war on poverty, of medicare, of social security, of federal aid to education, of unions, and so forth.

tools for the #resistance

I was in Eau Claire, WI, on Sunday and honored to present to a large group of active citizens convened by a local Indivisible chapter and other parts of the #resistance. I offered five tools for thinking about political movements. My presentation went into somewhat more detail, but this is the gist.

First, the question for citizens is “What we should do?” — where “we” means a concrete group of people like the folks convened in a room in Eau Claire on Sunday.

The hard part is to avoid a shift into “What should be done?” or “How should things be?” Those questions evade responsibility. They are also excessively easy. Carbon should be taxed; Trump should resign. Those points may be correct but they don’t tell us what we should do.

Second, any functioning political group, network, or movement should combine deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships. Deliberation means discussing what to do in diverse groups. That makes us wiser. Collaboration means actually getting work done together, coordinating voluntary action. And civic relationships are the reasons that people participate.

That framework is central to my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, which I wrote while Barack Obama was president. I have considered whether this framework is obsolete when a man who threatens the republic occupies the White House. I still believe it applies. For one thing, people learn to value deliberative and collaborative styles of leadership by participating personally in decent groups. When only 28 percent of Americans report belonging to any group that is inclusive and accountable, no wonder many tolerate Trump’s style of leadership. Besides, every large-scale social movement, no matter how adversarial, needs deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships to move forward. These are scarce but renewable sources of power.

Third, try to maximize four goods that are often in tension. “Scale” means involving a lot of people. You can’t win without numbers. “Depth” means transforming people, building their skills, confidence, wisdom, and leadership. That’s necessary because we must all grow to be effective. “Pluralism” means encompassing a diversity of ideas and identities. Groups that fail to be pluralist get stupid and are unable to appeal to outsiders. “Unity” means coming together for one cause. Together they spell “SPUD,” which is a handy acronym. The challenge is that Depth trades off against Scale, and Pluralism against Unity. But the best movements achieve a bit of all four.

Fourth, work at several levels of power. The discussion of  “faces” or “levels” of power goes back at least to Stephen Lukes and John Gaventa in the 1970s; I borrow from the recent version by Archon Fung. The basic idea is that you can challenge a particular wrong, or a rule or policy, or who makes the rules and policies, or what’s on the public’s agenda. For instance, you could help an individual vote, change voting laws, change who makes the voting laws (e.g., who draws district boundaries), or change how the public thinks about voting.

I venture the generalization that right-wing leaders are much better than the left at the third level of power. For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has relentlessly attacked public sector unions (except police) so that union leaders can’t help determine policies; and he has passed restrictive voters to change who participates in elections. The left is better at the first and second levels of power, but those levels have limits.

Finally, I reposted my “How to Respond?” chart, which I first released on this blog a couple of days after the November election. (Click to expand it.) It offers a set of strategies for activists in the current moment.

You can do more than one of these things. Probably some people should be doing each of them. But the eight options in the bottom row are too many for any one person or group to undertake, and they are in some tension. It’s hard for a group devoted to winning the 2018 election also to convene ideologically diverse conversations to bridge the gap between right and left. So most of us need to choose.

Note that I didn’t write, “How to respond to Trump’s victory.” This diagram doesn’t pretend to be nonpartisan or politically neutral. It offers options like winning the next election with a Democratic coalition and resisting the administration. But it is meant to be somewhat open-ended and subject to various interpretations. Genuine conservatives might take it to mean, “How to take our party back from a big-government chauvinist.” And leftists might interpret is as “How to respond to three centuries of injustice, in which Democrats are complicit.” As always, a plurality of views is an asset.

One way to use these tools might be to brainstorm concrete actions and then ask which cells in the last table you are filling, which levels of power you are addressing, how you are doing in SPUD, and whether you have deliberated and collaborated well. This process will not generate The Right Answer but it may help inform your strategies.