There’s blood in the water. That’s the sense that the money behind the American Right has as we head into the second year of the Trump era. And with recent polls showing the big Democratic polling edge ebbing, the sharks are beginning to circle.
But, as unsettling as that is, there is a lot more at stake than just one election cycle.
As Doug Porter ably reported last week, the Koch network got together in Indian Wells to sip cocktails and discuss how they could invest $400 million to promote their politics and policies in the upcoming election cycle. That alone is very bad news for those of us hoping that a Democratic wave might sweep the Republican majority out of the House of Representatives, but the aim of this incredibly powerful group of billionaires is not just to win one election but to win the long war.
In my columns on Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, I address the historical origins of the radical right’s plans to “save capitalism from democracy—permanently” and underline how it all started with an effort to undermine public schools in the South in the aftermath of the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Of course, along with their deep disdain for public education, the intellectual movement out of which the Koch network was born was also bent on attacking civil rights, unions, environmentalists, and any other form of what they saw as “collective gangsterism” that aimed to tax the rich or regulate corporations for any reason, public good be damned.
Last week in Indian Wells, the mood on the right was buoyant with Charles Koch himself crowing about the fact that his dream of a rightwing, corporatist utopia seemed so close to fruition that he could almost taste it. As the Washington Post reported the day after Porter’s piece, Koch and his allies were there not just to raise millions to dump into the upcoming elections, but because they see an opportunity to dismantle American public education and go for the kill shot on teachers’ unions as a prelude to eliminating all unions.
Thus, while the Democrats struggle to even come up with a coherent message that can help them win elections nationally, the enemies of popular democracy in America are thinking strategically. The Post piece notes that the “right are increasingly focused on melding the minds of the next generation by making massive, targeted investments in both K-12 and higher education.” More specifically, the Koch network wants to shape the minds of the next generation by using a “three-prong strategy” designed to “reform, supplement, innovate.” The point of the spear is, not surprisingly, a radical school “choice” agenda that will disrupt and, ultimately destabilize American public education.
To do this, the Koch network knows that it has to defeat the Democrats, but, even more importantly, they need to destroy public sector unions. They are aided in this pursuit by the fact that the new Supreme Court majority that Trump’s victory brought is about to rule against public sector unions in the upcoming Janus vs AFSCME case which will dramatically curtail public unions’ ability to collect dues. The unfortunate reality that many Democrats fail to understand the crucial role that unions have played in the success of the Democratic Party also helps the network’s cause.
Hence, the exuberance in Indian Wells as the Washington Post piece relates that Charles Koch joyously proclaimed: “’We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the last 50,’ Koch told donors during a cocktail reception. ‘The capabilities we have now can take us to a whole new level. … We want to increase the effectiveness of the network … by an order of magnitude. If we do that, we can change the trajectory of the country.’”
If you believe in American democracy, that should send a chill down your spine.
It should also serve as a cautionary note for those who discount the significance of the labor movement historically and/or at present. There is a reason why the Koch network hates labor—unions stand in their way and serve as an alternative model of collective, bottom-up power rather than the rule of the oligarchs. Unions are the only vehicle American working people have ever had to contest the power of the moneyed elite.
The attempt to disrupt public education and kill unions is the cornerstone of the right’s assault on American democracy. As unions have declined, so have the prospects of the Democratic Party. As the Nation recently noted:
In a new study that will soon be released as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, James Feigenbaum of Boston University, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia, and Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution examined the long-term political consequences of anti-union legislation by comparing counties straddling a state line where one state is right-to-work and another is not. Their findings should strike terror into the hearts of Democratic Party strategists: Right-to-work laws decreased Democratic presidential vote share by 3.5 percent.
The study found that impacts persist in down-ballot races, and have given Republicans more power in the Senate, House, and governors’ mansions, as well as in state legislatures. This leads to a vicious cycle wherein the GOP can use that power to further suppress votes, gut union rights, and gerrymander legislatures—in other words, embark on a fundamental retooling of American political mechanics . . .
The two-pronged war on unions—both private sector and public sector—has already weakened the Democratic Party. While Democrats view politics primarily through the lens of technocratic policy fixes, Republicans think of politics as war, and their goal is to demobilize, humiliate, immiserate, and ultimately destroy their opponents . . .
Right-to-work is part of this process: Arch-conservative Grover Norquist said that if right-to-work laws “are enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.” Another proponent of right-to-work, Tracie Sharp, told The Wall Street Journal, “When you chip away at one of the [liberal] power sources that also does a lot of get-out-the-vote…I think that helps [Republican politicians]—for sure.” One State Policy Network memo, written by Sharp, bragged that the passage of right-to-work in Michigan led to the loss of 13,000 union memberships and a reduction of $8 million in union funding. The memo boasted that “permanently depriving the Left from [sic] access to millions of dollars” has dealt “a major blow to the Left’s ability to control government at the state and national levels.”
The plain truth is that right-to-work laws in places like Wisconsin and Michigan brought us Trump. For all of the hand-wringing and agonizing about “what went wrong,” very few analysts have pointed out the simple fact that this new study boldly underlines: the loss of union density is a disaster for progressive politics of all kinds. All the liberal social policies that those outside and inside the labor movement hold dear are collateral damage when the right guts unions.
As a New York Magazine piece on the same study observes:
This could have been a golden age for American liberalism. The Democratic Party — and the progressive forces within it — have so much going for them. The GOP’s economic vision has never been less popular with ordinary Americans, or more irrelevant to their material needs. The U.S. electorate is becoming less white, less racist, and less conservative with each passing year. Social conservatism has never had less appeal for American voters than it does today. The garish spectacle of the Trump-era Republican Party is turning the American suburbs — once a core part of the GOP coalition — purple and blue.
If the Democratic Party wasn’t bleeding support from white working-class voters in its old labor strongholds, it would dominate our national politics. Understandably, Democratic partisans often blame their powerlessness on such voters — and the regressive racial views that led them out of Team Blue’s tent. But as unions have declined across the Midwest, Democrats haven’t just been losing white, working-class voters to revanchist Republicans — they’ve also been losing them to quiet evenings at home. The NBER study cited by McElwee found that right-to-work laws reduce voter turnout in presidential elections by 2 to 3 percent.
Further, the notion that grassroots organizing cannot make a non-woke white man prioritize his class interests over his racial resentments — and thus, that the Democratic Party’s refusal to bolster union organizing was irrelevant to its failure to fend off Trump — is unsupportable. In 2008, labor invested a quarter-billion dollars into Barack Obama’s election, allocating the bulk of those funds into burnishing the candidate’s support among union voters in the Midwest. That year, unionized white men backed Obama by an 18 percent margin; while nonunionized ones went for John McCain by 16.
If right-to-work laws alone cost Democrats roughly 3.5 percent of a given state’s vote share, how many votes has the party lost since 1978 by refusing to prioritize progressive labor reforms?
Of course, the costs of this failure have been immense, but things could get infinitely worse if we don’t start taking people like Charles Koch at their word. The billionaire class knows that destroying unions and gutting the public sector is central to remaking the country into a perverse Social Darwinist paradise. As we approach the fall-out from the Janus decision (which should come within a month or two) will progressives and their allies in the Democratic Party finally realize that the long war on American labor is also a war on them and everything they hold dear?