The two major parties will have to change, or they are likely to be changed by voters who have had enough,” the Reverend Jesse Jackson said recently. He knows about the impact of grassroots discontent because he ran an unexpectedly strong progressive populist campaign for president in the Democratic primaries in the 1980s which was very similar to Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
With Donald Trump as its presumptive nominee, the Republican Party is changing to address the fears of economically insecure Americans with a cynical and phony populism. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, how will she respond? Mainstream pundits (and most likely rich donors) urge her to “pivot to the center” and focus on attracting affluent Republican suburbanites who are leery of Trump.
Quite a few U.S. labor union leaders are alarmed at Trump’s popularity among too many workers. On May 9 and 10, Trump was a focus of concern at an international conference in Washington D.C. on rising far right populism in the U.S. and Europe. It was sponsored by the AFL-CIO (the largest federation of unions in this country), Working America (the federation’s outreach arm to non-union workers) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiflung (a German foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party).
Labor people came from France, Germany, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. The conference was a response to the ascendancy of not only Trump in the U.S. but also the National Democratic Party in Germany, the National Front in France, the Golden Dawn in Greece and others.
“Too many politicians in the U.S. and Europe are exploiting our differences and inciting hate and division,” said Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO. “…Political tactics that scapegoat hardworking immigrants and refugees only serve to pit workers against one another, while ignoring the corporate excess that created these problems.”
Speakers placed a good deal of blame for the far right’s rise on the center left parties’ embrace of “neo-liberalism,” an ideology pioneered by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Later, a cuddlier version was offered by Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” Democrats and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” in the U.K.
Damon Silvers, director of policy at the AFL-CIO, said: “Starting around 1980 in the United States and the United Kingdom, and in the 1990s in the larger European Union, the idea that governments should not act to help people in economic pain, or to right imbalances in economic power, became gospel, not just among the right, but among parties that identified themselves as the center-left.
“The idea was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were going to have a market-based Utopia, where the problems that had plagued market societies in the 20th century were no longer going to exist. So the institutions and politics that had come into being to address the injustices and instabilities of market societies could be dismantled without fear of what would happen next. …
“But instead of ushering in a market-based era of growth and good feeling, neo-liberalism brought back the economic pathologies of the pre-New Deal era — runaway inequality and financial boom and bust cycles on an epic scale. And politically, the neo-liberal consensus opened the door to a monster that many had thought had been driven permanently into the outer darkness of democratic politics—the racist, authoritarian right.”
Silvers warned that “we should have learned from the 1930s that if the public is offered two choices — democracy and austerity, or authoritarianism and jobs — a lot of people will choose authoritarianism.” Those who live in comfort rightly condemn such a choice, he said, but anybody who wants to lead a democracy should “make sure that democratic governance provides economic justice and economic security.”
Silvers said it is tempting to “bite our tongues and join in the neo-liberal consensus in the hopes of gaining powerful allies against right-wing authoritarianism from among the 1 percent. But this approach will only feed the authoritarian right by proving the argument they make to working people that ‘the politicians don’t care about you.’”
Instead, Silvers said the labor movement must demand that politicians and parties they support be advocates for ambitious policies which produce broad-based economic growth driven by rising wages.
He insisted that the politicians support “a global New Deal — a plan to get us out of global economic stagnation driven by downward pressures on wages — and into a virtuous cycle of rising wages driving investment that drives productivity.”
To defeat Donald Trump, we need to confront his racism and sexism but also offer a transformational vision of a more decent and caring society.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.