Joe Biden lost Florida by more than double the margin that Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Democrats lost at least five seats in the Florida House, and Republicans defeated two Democratic members of Congress in South Florida. An amendment to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, however, won by 22 points.
Florida isn’t alone. Arizona voters approved a tax increase on people making over $250,000 a year to fund public education in the wake of last year’s teachers’ strikes, and in Colorado paid family and medical leave passed with 58 percent of the vote. In both states, the measures passed with a larger share of the vote than Biden got.
There were disappointments, of course—the success of Prop 22 in California and the defeat of the fair tax plan in Illinois. But across the country, policies supported by the left and labor groups have proved more popular than the Democratic Party. Combine the dissatisfaction with Democrats with the dislike of the two-party system (57 percent of Americans believe the country needs a third major party, a September Gallup poll found), and you have the conditions for an actual labor party to emerge and compete against the two parties of capital.
Since American Federation of Labor founding president Samuel Gompers and his allies stifled the nascent movement for a labor party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democratic Party has ostensibly been the party for workers. And yet its alliance with labor has always been one of conflicts and contradictions—first with the anti-union, anti-civil-rights efforts of the Democrats in the Jim Crow South and more recently as the party embraced corporatism.
The arrangement isn’t working for unions. Nearly a third of US workers belonged to a union in the mid-1960s, but after 50 years of decline, union membership stood at just 10.3 percent in 2019. The pandemic’s devastation of the restaurant and hospitality industries is likely to do even more damage to workers.
Many Democrats are realizing that the gradual deemphasis and weakening of labor has cost them electorally. After passing right-to-work laws, Wisconsin and Michigan, once strongholds of labor and the Democratic Party at the presidential level, have become swing states. Bear in mind all of the usual caveats about the unreliability of exit polls, but a New York Times exit poll in Ohio gave Donald Trump a double-digit victory among union households there.
After being pushed by unions, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act this year, an overdue reform of labor law that would, among other things, empower the National Labor Relations Board to fine companies, limit the misclassification of independent contractors, and override right-to-work laws.
But we’ve seen Democrats betray labor before, most notably in 2009, when the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition killed card check, which would have allowed workers to avoid NLRB-administered elections on union representation if a majority of people in a unit indicated support for forming a union. And despite the best efforts of high-profile leaders like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to reorient the party toward the multiracial working class, it’s obvious where the party’s heart is. In September the US Chamber of Commerce—one of the most influential institutions of the conservative movement and capitalism—endorsed 23 freshman House Democrats for reelection along with 29 House Republicans. The message was clear: Business might be better under Republicans and their corporate tax breaks, but it wouldn’t exactly be bad with the other party of capital in power, either.
There are significant obstacles to starting a third party, including restrictive ballot access laws, the perception that a labor party would hand elections to the GOP, and the intransigence of labor leadership. Any credible effort would need to begin with the most powerful unions in the labor movement as well as the defection of top Democratic critics within the party. The Green Party, with its overreliance on presidential elections and irrelevance at the local level, is instructive here: If a new party has any chance of succeeding, it needs to be built from the ground up, not the top down.
A labor party could mimic what the Democratic left is currently doing: challenge establishment Democrats in their dominance in the cities and lay the groundwork to organize rural areas and battle Republicans. Taking cues from the Working Families Party and the Vermont Progressive Party, such a party could form an occasional pact with labor-friendly Democrats to hold off a Republican and vice versa. (Another lesson from the WFP, at least in New York state: That alliance will be tenuous, and the Democrats will shiv you at the first opportunity.)
While the Democratic Party is the lesser of two evils, we need a new party concerned with the material well-being of the working class, not with balancing conflicting interests in search of a tent big enough to hold both the sheep and the wolves.
To read the other side of The Debate, read Jonathan Smucker’s “Don’t Abandon the Democratic Party—Take It Over.”