Two pieces last week counter economic fatalism by stressing the role of political choices in generating inequality. In a long feature for Talking Points Memo, Rich Yeselson charts the decline of American unions from their midcentury heyday and argues that the old labor movement, whatever its flaws, provided something our contemporary moment distinctly lacks: a sense of community, or what Yeselson, quoting Irving Howe, calls a “socialization of concern.” Similarly, in Boston Review, Stuart White reviews a trio of books which emphasize “a vital role for the democratic state in shaping economic distribution toward egalitarian objectives,” while observing that the main vehicle for achieving that political goal has nearly vanished from many modern capitalist democracies. Though occasionally “exasperating” to its liberal allies, the “powerful labor movement,” writes White, was nonetheless “critical in making politically possible egalitarian policy.” Today—thanks, in part, to changes at the NLRB and setbacks in the states and Congress—there is no such labor juggernaut with which to contend, and in wealthy democracies, “despite universal suffrage and regular, competitive elections, policy choice is heavily tilted toward the wealthy and business corporations.” Inequality is generated and sustained (at least in part) by that political process—a result of reversible political decisions, not uncontrollable economic forces.
There are lots of good reasons to stress history and agency in our political narrative of inequality. Doing so assigns responsibility, identifying the people and policies which advanced equality, as well as those which undermined it. This is essential if we are to learn from history and guard against the temptation to lazily assign equal blame. History also showcases alternate social and political arrangements, demonstrating how those arrangements functioned (or not) to produce the outcomes we’re seeking. Social scientists operating in this framework study how inequality is generated by the political process, both in the U.S. and in other capitalist democracies.
This emphasis on history and agency not only offers a more accurate account of how we reached this unequal state; it also indicates just how much work there is to do. My somewhat-pessimistic piece on the disappointments awaiting liberals over the next few years was greeted by a lively rejoinder from Democracy editor Michael Tomasky, who points out that two-term presidencies almost always include big losses for the president’s party in Congressional and state-level elections. Besides, Tomasky notes, Democrats pushed through a lot of important policies in the last eight years, and those will need protecting over the next eight. That’s the most important fight—and if victory comes at the cost of losing lower offices, then so be it. “Anybody who’d rather give up the White House for control of eight more governors’ mansions and 11 more state legislatures,” Tomasky writes, “needs his coconut examined.”
That trade-off seems to me exactly right, but as Yeselson and White stress, there still remains a big gap where the mobilized proponents of an egalitarian agenda ought to be. The political scientists Henry Brady, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Sidney Verba recently noted that “other than unions […] there are very, very few organizations that advocate on behalf of the interests of workers who are not professionals or managers.” And over the last three decades, they report, union membership sharply declined not only as a percentage of the workforce, but in absolute terms as well—by nearly four million. “It is not coincidental,” they write, “that the increase in economic inequality and the weakening of unions have occurred at the same time.” One disturbing implication of the research I cited last week is that this could feed into a vicious circle of weakened unions and worsening inequality. And if we view that inequality as something we can (partly) make as well as unmake, it’s not clear what mobilized organization is going to lead the work of reversing this trend.