Democracy heading South, way up North in Michigan

Obama wasted time and energy “courting Republicans” – and Democrats who constantly “echoed Republican talking points”.

Obama on Syria chemical weapons
US President Barack Obama put all sorts of "GOP-friendly tax cuts" into his stimulus proposal without "Republicans even having to ask for them" [Reuters]

Every once in a while, you read a book that changes your life – or at least a significant part of your outlook on life. In college, if you are lucky, you may find yourself reading two or three such books at once. When I was full-time book reviewer, it wasn’t quite like being back in college – but it was close. 

Still, a few books stand out from the crowd and one of them – Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie by August Cochrane III – was very much on my mind as I heard and saw the news that Michigan had passed a so-called “right to work” law which will significantly undermine the power of unions in the state. 

But in order to appreciate the value of Cochrane’s book, we must first understand what has just taken place in Michigan. 

First, we need to understand the basic terms. What “right to work” means is that individual workers don’t have to join a union to get a job at a unionised business – or even simply pay a fee to support the union’s work bargaining on their behalf, protecting the contract, enforcing workplace safety rules, etc. 

Since unions win representation by majority-vote elections, the so-called “right to work” is fundamentally anti-democratic. And since workers reap the benefits of union organising, whether they pay for it or not, it’s also fundamentally a form of stealing as well – taking something for yourself that others have earned. 

It also reduces unions’ power both at the bargaining table, and in politics more generally, and the data show it: wages are lower in “right to work” states for similar workers doing similar jobs, not just for unionised workers, but for everyone, as first shown by the Economic Policy Institute in 2001, with a more recent analysis in 2011. The latter found the cost in lower average wages is $1500 a year.  


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‘Right to work for less’ laws 

So it’s no wonder that opponents call them “right to work for less” laws – that’s precisely what they are. That’s not just money out of workers’ pockets, of course – it’s money that’s not circulating to the rest of local economy as well. Depressed wages depress the whole economy.  

Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor at the Detroit Free Press – which previously supported Snyder – put it like this

[O]f the 11 states with the fastest-growing economies as measured by gross domestic product, only three were right-to-work states in 2011. (Michigan was on that list in 2011, too, which Snyder spent all year this year bragging about. Now, suddenly, he claims our economy is being hobbled by an oppressive union environment.)

As a result, right-to-work states also suffer much worse poverty than union states, by several important measures.

Eight of the 10 states with the lowest overall per-capita incomes are right-to-work. And among the states with the highest rates of people without medical insurance (a sign of the quality of jobs available), seven of 10 are right-to-work. Eight of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates are right-to-work.

Why would Michigan want to emulate those states?

It’s not that these states don’t add jobs, “just not the kind Michigan legislators would want to see their own kids reduced to,” Henderson wrote. 

After the Taft-Hartley Act significantly weakened US labour law in 1947, the South was the first region to adopt “right to work” laws, but they’ve spread to many states in the Great Plains and the mountain west since then – states where Republicans have long held political power. But it’s only quite recently that they’ve begun to be pushed in the industrial heartland. 

Over the last two years, as controversial anti-labour measure engulfed the neighbouring states of Wisconsin and Ohio, Michigan was busy destroying democracy more generally – imposing state-appointed “fiscal managers” to run a growing number of majority-black cities, stripping the power of local governments. 

On more than one occasion, Republican Governor Rick Snyder said that he had no intention of pushing a “right to work” agenda, which he said would be divisive. But then, suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye on Thursday, December 6, he said that he’d changed his mind. Suddenly it wouldn’t be divisive at all, regardless of the instant wave of protesters who showed up at the state capital as soon as they heard the news. 

Within hours, the lame duck state legislature quickly swung into action, hurriedly passing the law that same day, without even pretending to follow normal legislative procedure, which would have required committee hearings, and at least the pretence of public testimony. “We literally weren’t given the legislation to read until minutes before voting,” one state senator said

Right-to-work legislation 

A helpful perspective on what just happened can be gotten from an editorial, “A failure of leadership: Snyder’s about-face on right-to-work betrays voters“, by the Detroit Free Press, as mentioned above, a paper that up till then had regularly supported Snyder, which only makes their displeasure all the sharper. “We trusted Snyder’s judgment,” the Free Press wrote, summing up its attitude over the past two years, despite some disagreements. 

“That trust has now been betrayed – for us, and for the hundreds of thousands of independents who voted for Snyder with the conviction that they were electing someone more independent, and more visionary, than partisan apparatchiks like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Florida’s Rick Scott.” 

The editorial went on to say: 

Snyder’s right-to-work legislation is an attempt to institutionalise Republicans’ current political advantage. Everything else is window dressing, and most of these diversionary talking points are demonstrably false.

The argument that right-to-work status makes states more competitive or prosperous is refuted by a mountain of evidence that shows right-to-work states trailing their union-friendly counterparts in key metrics like per capita wealth, poverty rates and health insurance coverage.

Snyder’s contention that workers’ First Amendment rights are compromised when a union they have freely elected to bargain on their behalf proposes a contract making union dues compulsory is equally specious. Employees are always free to reject such a contract or decertify the union that negotiated it, just as stockholders can force the ouster of corporate managers they deem unresponsive to their needs. 

The bottom line was clear: 

The real motive of Michigan’s right-to-work champions, as former GOP legislator Bill Ballenger ruefully observed, is “pure greed” – the determination to emasculate, once and for all, the Democratic Party’s most reliable source of financial and organisational support. 

As David Weigel points out at Slate, this is but one high-profile result of a much broader phenomenon, the unprecedented GOP sweep of state legislative seats in the 2010 elections, which netted them more seats than they’ve held at any time since 1928. This, in turn, allowed them unprecedented power in the drawing of legislative districts, which in turn has made it incredibly difficult for the majorities won in that one election to be overturned in subsequent ones – even when Democrats turn out in droves – as they just did this past month.  


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In Michigan, only the lower house was up for election this past November, and although Democrats outpolled Republicans in these elections by a solid 9-point margin – 54.7 percent to 45.3 percent – Republicans easily kept control of the body by a 59-51 margin: 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent the other way. It would have taken another 2.7 percent shift -meaning a total margin of over 10 points – for Democrats merely to have broken even in the lower house. 

This was not an anomaly, Weigle wrote: 

It was the same in other Midwestern/rust belt states controlled by Republicans. Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 7 points, but Republicans dominated the new maps, gaining one seat in the Assembly and two in the Senate. In Ohio (Obama by 3), Republicans gained one seat in the House and held their Senate supermajority. In Pennsylvania, Democrats won every statewide office, but gained only two House seats and three Senate seats. 

This, in turn, instantly made me think of Cochrane’s remarkable book, because of the clarity it brings to understanding the long-term political process whose latest results we are seeing both in Michigan and throughout the region that Weigle describes, as well as in Washington, DC. 

Rising influence of Southern politicians 

In Democracy Heading South, he argues that America has not just seen the rising influence of Southern politicians in recent years, but the rise of an entire political system that is remarkably similar to that which characterised the South around 1950, as described in one of the classics of American political science, VO Key’s Southern Politics in State And Nation. The two systems are quite different in form, Cochrane argues, but strikingly similar in function – like lungs compared with gills. 

The 1950s South was a one-party system, but as far as state and local politics were concerned, that amounted to a no-party system, which functioned somewhat differently in different states, but always resulted in a system with very little in the way of accountability from elected politicians. Cochrane wrote: 

“Key argued that because Southern politics lacked strong, responsive parties, was based on a narrow electorate, and was designed to perpetuate white supremacy, Southern electoral institutions lacked the coherence, continuity, and accountability that could make Southern politics rational and democratic.”

This proved particularly inadequate to the task of developing the South as an industrial democracy, transitioning from its long-time agricultural foundations. 

Likewise, Cochran argued, its later-day (dys-)functional twin was crippling America’s ability to transition to a successful post-industrial democracy, with policies and institutions mediating global market forces to serve the common good. 

“Specifically, the maladies of the Solid South included elections that ignored or blurred issues; weak, elitist and even demagogic leaders; a proclivity to avoid problems and coast along with the status quo; rampant corruption and policymaking by deals; voters who were confused and apathetic; an appallingly narrow electoral base, including low turnout among even those lucky enough to be enfranchised; a resulting tilt toward the elites, while the have-not majority got taken for a ride.” 

These same problems had become national in scope 50 years later, Cochrane argued, due to a confluence of different forces – not least the growing costs of media-centric campaigning which tends to recreate the vacuous, carnival-style, politics-as-entertainment mode so characteristic of the South described by Key, with individual politicians increasingly presenting themselves like specialised products. 

But historically, to help explain how money and media came to play the destructive roles we see today, Cochrane turned, in part to the 1968 election, and Walter Dean Burnham’s interpretation of it as a “de-aligning election”, which initiated the erosion of party power relative to well-funded individual candidates.  

The concept of a dealigning election was Burnham’s highly insightful variant on what he and other political scientists – VO Key among them – had come to identify as “realigning elections”, elections in which large blocks of demographically similar voters realign their partisan allegiances in ways that last three or four decades. 

Typically, such elections combine two successive “wave elections” in the House, in which dozens of seats switch parties along with a decisive presidential election that wins states beyond the typical base for the previous few decades. 

The period of divided loyalties 

What made 1968 different is that the realignment process among voters – seen most strikingly in the Democrats’ loss of support in the White South – did not lead to the creation of a new majority coalition, but instead to a prolonged period of divided loyalties and divided government, typified by, but not limited to, Southern white voters who voted increasingly Republican at the presidential level, even as they continued electing Democrats to Congress and all levels of state offices. 


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The result of this dealignment is quite striking, if you look at the history of presidential and congressional elections. Following each of the major realigning elections – 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896 and 1932 – there is a period in which the dominant party wins or holds a trifecta – control of the House, Senate and White House – which lasts for roughly 18 two-year sessions. 

Some of these periods of dominance are significantly stronger than others, but there is always a clearly dominant and a clearly subdominant party. But after 1968, neither party dominated in trifectas, as divided government became the rule, accounting for 14 ¾ sessions out of 22 through Obama’s first term. 

Thus, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush I all were Presidents who never had a partisan majority supporting them in Congress, and one-term Jimmy Carter was the only President to have such a majority for his entire term in office. 

Within this period, there were just seven trifecta elections total (with the trifecta collapsing after just half a year in one case) and four trifectas for the marginally more successful party – compared to 12, nine, nine, 12 and 13 for the dominant party in the previous five party system eras. 

In the crucial early years of this period – the first seven terms, there were just two such elections – 1976 and 1978 – compared to seven, six, seven, seven and seven in the previous eras, with the sub-dominant party winning one trifecta in the early years of the second party system. 

Thus, entirely unlike any other era in US history, divided government has become the norm, so much so that it shapes every aspect of political psychology among the elite political class. 

This is why, for example, we get a film – Lincoln – about the abolition of slavery which focuses on the historically irrelevant anomaly that the 13th Amendment was approved by a lame duck House of Representatives where Democrats had enough votes to prevent passage until the new House was sworn into a special session – as Lincoln had already promised to do.  

There was virtually nothing bipartisan about the ending of slavery – which did not just divide the parties, but set the whole nation at war with itself – but this film miraculously makes bipartisanship – in the form of crude backroom deal-making, no less – the very heart of the story of slavery’s end. 

(It is also why the Detroit Free Press was so comfortable promoting and fostering trust of Governor Snyder: he spoke the centrist, bipartisan mantra of pragmatism and balance that is the holy gospel of this anomalous political era – and they blissfully ignored the extremist forces behind him, which make the differences between the two parties anything but symmetrical.) 

Psycho-political conditioning 

Yet, as my erstwhile Open Left blogmate Mike Lux showed in his book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, American history clearly shows that major progress almost entirely occurs in brief, intense bursts, which largely reflect the strong one-party dominance that comes in the early years of any given political era. (The “Great Society” burst of legislation under Lyndon Johnson, principally in 1965-66, represented a rare second wind.)  

The historical record Lux details are clear. It is not bipartisanship that ensures sound and lasting policy, it is strong partisanship that’s necessary to craft and pass it, and the basic soundness of the policy itself that ensures its endurance. 

That’s why, for example, a majority of both self-identified Republicans and self-identified conservatives consistently says we’re spending too little, rather than too much on Social Security and national healthcare spending. Not only they not want to eliminate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, they don’t even want to cut back spending. 

In 2008, Barack Obama and the Democrats won what should have been a realigning election, following the earlier mid-term wave election of 2006, which gave Democrats control of the House. 

True, the margins in terms of number of seats were not nearly as big as some realigning elections in the past, but the long-term volatility of House elections has been substantially reduced since the 1970s, and when adjusted to reflect this fact, the combined 2006 and 2008 elections clearly did constitute a credible, if not overwhelming, realigning one-two punch. 

In terms of the combined popular vote, Democrats won by 6.4 million votes in 2006, a margin of 7.9 percent, and by 12.9 million votes in 2008, a margin of 10.5 percent. What’s more, the broader need for change was undeniable, with major failures in national security (9/11, the ill-conceived Iraq War), fundamental competence (Katrina) and the economy (the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression). 

A clear change of direction was both called for and supported by the voters. Had the Democrats delivered, they would most likely have put themselves into the same sort of dominant position that Democrats were in for two decades after 1932, or that Republicans were in after 1860. 

But instead of the sweeping, forward-looking change people were lead to expect during Obama’s campaign – the sort of change that typically comes with realigning elections, and solidifies the majority that enacts them – we got too much more of the same muddled centrism which had helped produce the problems in the first place. 

Forty years of psycho-political conditioning had taken their toll – along with the unprecedented explosion of political power in the financial sector and the top 1 percent, as well as prolonged, institution-building ideological warfare on the right. 


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Despite inauguration crowds pushing two million participants, following a movement-mimicking campaign that attracted volunteers in droves with its promise of “hope and change”, the Obama administration quickly adopted the most minimalist, insider, pre-compromised political approach imaginable. In doing so, Obama was clearly signalling anything but hope and change, but rather the full-throated endorsement of the long-standing dominant modality of divided government. 

The political myth 

This “bipartisan” “post-partisan” or technocratic approach – choose whatever label you like – promises nuance and balance, but instead produces “kludgeocracy”, described by Johns Hopkins political scientist Steven Teles in a recent paper as “the rickety, complicated and self-defeating complexity of public policy across multiple, seemingly unrelated areas of government activity”. 

He goes on to warn that “the most insidious feature of kludgeocracy is the hidden, indirect and frequently corrupt distribution of its costs”, and offers the example of “401(k)s, IRAs, 529 plans and the rest of our crazy quilt of savings incentives” which are far more complicated than Social Security, and come with management fees and the like that take an enormous bite out of the relatively uncertain returns they deliver. 

Obama’s centrist predilection for kludgeocracy is why, for example, he put all sorts of GOP-friendly tax cuts into his stimulus proposal without Republicans even having to ask for them. The intent was to get roughly half of Senate Republicans to vote for the bill. There was talk of it passing with 80 votes. Instead, Republicans blasted it mercilessly, only a few Northeast moderates voted for it in the Senate, and it passed with a bare filibuster-thwarting 60 votes. 

A similar logic dictated the decision to base healthcare reform on the kludgeocratic conservative Heritage Foundation plan developed to counter Clinton’s healthcare reform proposal in 1995. This decision was buttressed by the total exclusion of single-payer proposals, even the scaled-down public option. 

Rather than arguing for, and advancing a progressive vision, compromising when necessary, Obama repeatedly wasted time and energy courting Republicans and wobbly Blue Dog-style Democrats who constantly echoed Republican talking points. 

For two long years, the substantial progressive majority that showed up at the polls in November 2008 had almost no representation in Washington, because the top Democrat elected in that wave election decreed that they should hold their tongues, in order to achieve a bipartisan unity that only existed as a political myth – the myth that the political dysfunction which Cochrane so ably described could be magically made to work. 

But, of course, Cochrane’s whole point is that this dysfunction is designed not to work – at least not for and in the public interest. For narrow, wealthy, powerful special interests – well, that’s another story. 

For them, the system works like a charm. Wall Street bankers destroy the economy, get bailed out by taxpayers, collect their bonuses, and millions of workers pick up the tab by losing their homes, their jobs, their pensions, and ultimately even the unions that hold out the hope of fighting back, when everyone else has abandoned them. 

That’s precisely how the system Cochrane described is supposed to work. That’s precisely how the system did work in Michigan, when Snyder suddenly changed his mind, and decided to grab all the power he could at once. 

So, what are you going to do about it? Hold an election? 

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.