Want to Reverse Polarization and Democratic Decline? Support UnionizationBreaking News
tags: unions, polarization, labor history
Jacob M. Grumbach is an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington in Seattle. His research investigates the political economy of the United States, with a focus on democracy, inequality, American federalism, and statistical methods. His book, Laboratories against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2022), investigates the nationalization of state politics over the past generation.
Twenty twenty-two was a decent year for democracy. Legislative districts remained gerrymandered, but the maps were not as extreme as they were in the 2010s. State governments were still engaging in voter suppression, but it was partly counteracted by pro-voter policies and mobilization by voter turnout groups. Perhaps most important, many candidates who were promoting “Stop the Steal” voter-fraud conspiracy theories lost in the 2022 midterms. Is American democracy out of the woods? The answer, unfortunately, is no. The events of 2022 certainly moved us away from the brink. But the threats remain. The situation is not hopeless, however, particularly if Democrats can focus on long-term strategies, such as rebuilding the labor movement.
The 2010s ushered in a new wave of state governments that eroded democratic institutions. States like North Carolina and Wisconsin took partisan gerrymandering to new heights, enabling conservative rural voters to elect majorities in state legislatures and the US House. While today’s legislative district maps are slightly fairer than those that were drawn in the 2010s, gerrymandering continues to weaken democracy. In North Carolina, for instance, the 2022 election gave that state’s Supreme Court a conservative majority that appears poised to allow extreme gerrymandering in the future.
Voter suppression policies remain in effect in many states as well. Critically, Georgia’s SB 202, which passed in 2021, made it more difficult to vote by mail and in person. This legislation was countered to some extent by the implementation of automatic voter registration in the state. Meanwhile, voting rights groups and democracy activists worked hard to combat the potentially demobilizing effects of SB 202. In the end, turnout in Georgia in 2022 was up. But the danger has not passed: To avoid the major decreases in turnout that could result from voter suppression policies, it is crucial that such aggressive voter mobilization efforts continue.
The erosion of democracy during the 2010s taught us a lesson: that we have to think ahead. Pundits and campaign consultants tend to look for quick fixes, but in order to reverse these trends, we have to work on long-term strategies.
That begins with rebuilding the labor movement. Labor unions don’t often come up in discussions about American democracy—but they should. Unions have sometimes stood in opposition to democracy and civil rights, as the American Federation of Labor did in its support of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act. But they have also organized working-class Americans around a pro-democracy agenda, whether that was in pursuit of democracy on the shop floor or in support of the civil rights movement in the South. In recent decades, resistance from employers and anti-labor policies in the states have decimated unions, and in their absence, many Americans have turned elsewhere for solidarity, including culture war politics. Research has shown that this dismantling of organized labor not only increased economic inequality but allowed a politics of racial and cultural resentment to supplant pro-democracy labor politics in many areas of the country.