Why the Democratic Party Has Abandoned the Middle Class in Favor of the Rich
Continued from previous page
Plenty bad, it turned out—though not because of anything Nixon himself did. The real harm was the eventual disaffection of the Democratic Party from the labor cause. Two years after the debacle in Miami, Nixon was gone and Democrats won a landslide victory in the 1974 midterm election. But the newly minted members of Congress, among them former McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart, weren't especially loyal to big labor. They'd seen how labor had treated McGovern, despite his lifetime of support for their issues.
The results were catastrophic. Business groups, simultaneously alarmed at the expansion of federal regulations during the '60s and newly emboldened by the obvious fault lines on the left, started hiring lobbyists and launching political action committees at a torrid pace. At the same time, corporations began to realize that lobbying individually for their own parochial interests (steel, sugar, finance, etc.) wasn't enough: They needed to band together to push aggressively for a broadly pro-business legislative environment. In 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote his now-famous memo urging the business community to fight back: "Strength lies in organization," he wrote, and would rise and fall "through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations." Over the next few years, the Chamber of Commerce morphed into an aggressive and highly politicized advocate of business interests, conservative think tanks began to flourish, and more than 100 corporate CEOs banded together to found a pro-market supergroup, the Business Roundtable.
They didn't have to wait long for their first big success. By 1978, a chastened union movement had already given up on big-ticket legislation to make it easier to organize workplaces. But they still had every reason to think they could at least win passage of a modest package to bolster existing labor law and increase penalties for flouting rulings of the National Labor Relations Board. After all, a Democrat was president, and Democrats held 61 seats in the Senate. So they threw their support behind a compromise bill they thought the business community would accept with only a pro forma fight.
Instead, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups declared war. Organized labor fought back with all it had—but that was no longer enough: The bill failed in the Senate by two votes. It was, said right-wing Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), "a starting point for a new era of assertiveness by big business in Washington." Business historian Kim McQuaid put it more bluntly: 1978, he said, was "Waterloo" for unions.
Organized labor, already in trouble thanks to stagflation, globalization, and the decay of manufacturing, now went into a death spiral. That decline led to a decline in the power of the Democratic Party, which in turn led to fewer protections for unions. Rinse and repeat. By the time both sides realized what had happened, it was too late—union density had slumped below the point of no return.
Why does this matter? Big unions have plenty of pathologies of their own, after all, so maybe it's just as well that we're rid of them. Maybe. But in the real world, political parties need an institutional base. Parties need money. And parties need organizational muscle. The Republican Party gets the former from corporate sponsors and the latter from highly organized church-based groups. The Democratic Party, conversely, relied heavily on organized labor for both in the postwar era. So as unions increasingly withered beginning in the '70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community. The rise of neoliberalism in the '80s, given concrete form by the Democratic Leadership Council, was fundamentally an effort to make the party more friendly to business. After all, what choice did Democrats have? Without substantial support from labor or business, no modern party can thrive.