Problems with Populism

Posted: February 15, 2010 in U.S. Politics

In the February 15, 2010  issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki makes a case for the idea that the American people are upset with everything, with “Big Business, Big Government, and Big Labor.”  What’s even more complicated is that the people’s anger is directed at policies that would, in large measure, benefit them.  Thus, they oppose the Congress’ health care reform even though they largely support the individual items in the bill like extending coverage to the uninsured and insurance guarantees for those who become unemployed.  They just seem to be against reform in general.  Surowiecki does not really explain why this is the case except to blame it on typical popular reaction to a poor economy and rising unemployment.  That may be the case, but looking back at history, there may be other more structural reasons.  I believe a great deal of the instability in working class and middle class responses to government action is tied to the decline in civil society and, in particular, to the decline of unions.

Less than 12.3 percent of the workforce in the U.S. is unionized and the majority of those are in the public sector.  The problems this presents to the society is not just that workers lack the leverage to improve their wages and working conditions.  It also means that workers don’t have the institutions and leaders to help them understand, manage, and move on particular economic and political issues as they emerge.  What does it say about labor that Denis Hughes, the President of the New York State AFL-CIO, was made chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year?  The issue for labor is not only complicity with the corporations in making decisions about jobs and wages, but leadership.

Throughout the last year, Obama’s policies have both wavered, misunderstood, and battered at the hands of Republicans, Tea Partiers, independents, and the media.  I cannot recall any report of a labor leader defending policies, except for the health care plan, defending Obama, or disciplining its members.  Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL_CIO, and Andy Stern, the head of SEIU, have Obama’s ear and many of the economic policies have favored labor.  A google news timeline search reveals that Stern has gotten more news reports compared to Trumka.

Trumka news reports

This is, perhaps, to be expected since Stern represents more government workers.  Both, however, have had little to say about the economy, the wall street bailout, the recession, or Obama’s policies.

Stern news reports

John Sweeney, the head of the AFLCIO before Trumka, was in the news more and he spoke about more general economic and political issues.

Sweeney news reports

But, then, Sweeney represented a larger proportion of the American workforce in the past.  He was a player the others had to contend with.  The decline of labor has, thus, affected not just labor’s wages and working conditions but American politics in general.  The volatility of American politics may simply be due to radical decline of unions, especially compared to other industrial countries.


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