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National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn Demoro hugs Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at NNU's headquarters in Oakland, California on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. (Photo: Santiago Mejia/ SF Chronicle)

Democratic Elites Once Again Demonstrate Their Contempt for Organized Labor

Jake Johnson

Last week, the Washington Post reported a striking piece of news: One of the five individuals Bernie Sanders nominated to play a role in writing the Democratic Party's platform was vetoed by the Democratic National Committee.

Striking, but far from surprising — particularly when, as the Post observes, we learn that the individual the DNC rejected was RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, "the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history."

The NNU was the first major union to endorse Bernie Sanders and, according to DeMoro, Sanders picked her "to advocate for Medicare for All."

While it is easy to see why this would provoke conflict, given Hillary Clinton's reversal on single-payer and her sustained attacks on the Sanders campaign's proposed "Medicare for All" system, Sanders pointed to a deeper rationale behind the DNC's decision to reject DeMoro: The Democratic Party's abandonment of organized labor.

"What we heard from the DNC," Sanders said, "was that they did not want representatives of labor unions on the platform-drafting committee."

This is no minor squabble: Here Sanders is pointing to the gradual rightward drift of the Democratic Party, a drift that has moved Democrats away from the working class and the poor — constituencies the party once claimed (and still does claim) to represent above all others.

Corey Robin has connected Democrats' departure from the issues affecting the working class to the rise of neoliberalism, an ideology that counts among its key tenets an ostensibly neutral posture toward business and labor, as opposed to a posture that favors labor as a matter of principle.

Perhaps the most significant result of neoliberalism's ascendance in the Democratic Party, though, was the cultivation of a base, and an intellectual core, that was openly hostile to agenda of organized labor — a base that consisted largely of the professional class.

The Democratic Party's favorable shift toward white-collar workers — sometimes called "knowledge professionals" —and away from its blue-collar base began, as Lily Geismer documents, during the days of George McGovern and culminated in the election of Bill Clinton, who "placed high-tech growth and suburban professionals at the forefront of his policy vision."

"There they have remained there ever since," Geismer adds. "The result is an even larger income gap and class bias between nonvoters — who tend to be more supportive of unions and public spending on jobs and health insurance — and higher-income voters, who are less in favor of such positions."

Democrats, to maintain the strength of this new base of support, had to transform the party's agenda accordingly. As T.A. Frank puts it, "The more rich people that a party attracts, the more that the party must do to stay attractive."

If the professionalization of the Democratic Party meant a break with the New Deal tradition that was supportive of organized labor, it has also meant a more cozy relationship with corporate America.

Bill Clinton's administration, which pursued Wall Street deregulation and NAFTA while enacting legislation that harmed the most vulnerable, and President Obama's aggressive lobbying for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that would grant unprecedented power to some of the world's most powerful companies, are potent indicators of the now not-so-secret bond between Democrats and big business.

Hillary Clinton's acceptance of staggering sums of money from Wall Street and fossil fuel lobbyists, and the fact that, fearing the unpredictability of a Trump presidency, Fortune 500 CEOs favor Clinton by a significant margin, provide further evidence.

And the Democratic National Committee, the engine of the party, has, in just the past several months, demonstrated its openness to corporate influence in unequivocal fashion: Earlier this year, the DNC quietly, in the words of the Washington Post's Tom Hamburger and Paul Kane, "rolled back restrictions introduced by presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 that banned donations from federal lobbyists and political action committees."

One can look, finally, to the platform committee, from which RoseAnn DeMoro was barred: As Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani reported late last month, Hillary Clinton and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz chose "three professional influence peddlers" and "a registered corporate lobbyist" to help articulate the party's vision and goals.

All the while, as the influence of organized wealth soars, labor's clout continues to dwindle.

"At their peak in 1954, 34.8% of all U.S. wage and salary workers belonged to unions," reports the Pew Research Center.

By 2015, that number had fallen to 11.1%.

Broadly, America's democratic deficit has worsened as a result: According to one influential study, economic elites have near total control over public policy — Shawn Gude calls this "the business veto."

According to Gude, the tremendous power and influence wielded by big business allows elites to "perpetually subvert that most basic condition of democratic rule — that ordinary citizens, not corporate paymasters, set the agenda."

Organized labor has always posed a threat to this established order. And it is because of this fact that many Democrats have, instead of standing in solidarity with working people against corporate overreach, jumped ship to join the side of those who now bankroll the party.

Throughout the 2016 primary process, the state of the Democratic Party has been laid bare by a candidate who has persisted in rejecting the new status quo — a status quo that accepts as perfectly normal the torrent of corporate cash that has infiltrated the political process.

By standing for a tradition that the Democratic Party has left behind — the tradition that, in the past, used mass politics to push reforms that lifted working families — Bernie Sanders has exposed, on a national stage, the rightward lurch of the Democratic establishment.

It is telling that while the party leadership's favorite candidate courts Republican donors, repudiates single-payer health care, and swims in Wall Street cash, Bernie Sanders is the one being blamed for sparking disorder and preventing unity.

This is how far the Democrats have fallen.

Franklin Roosevelt once castigated those he called the "economic royalists" for using their vast wealth to exert pernicious influence on the political process.

Today, Bernie Sanders is delivering a similar message — and receiving nothing but scorn from party leaders.

Perhaps, in today's political landscape, this scorn is the greatest compliment one can be paid.

Who, after all, would want to be praised by the party that has, under the guise of pragmatism, left behind its working class base to pursue the riches offered by the corporate class?

Democrats are proud to champion the agendas of working class voters when it comes time to take their donations and their votes, but when a candidate who genuinely fights for their interests emerges and captures the attention and support of millions, he is rejected by establishment figures who now find it expedient to cling to "get things done" liberalism and to push back against those who pursue ambitious social agendas.

Sanders has had tremendous success in mobilizing some of the base that the Democratic Party has, for decades, repeatedly neglected and failed.

But instead of confronting their failures, elites are, as Molly Ball puts it, "choosing as their avatar a candidate who, though she’s made rhetorical gestures to the left, remains essentially centrist in orientation — a candidate friendly to the party’s donor class and elites, well-connected with its institutions, and incrementalist in her approach to policy."

If the past is any guide, the results will likely be what many have come to expect from the Democratic Party.

Because, as Lily Geismer concludes, "A party without a working-class core can’t be expected to improve the prospects of the working class."

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Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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