CRITICS SEPTEMBER 6, 2010
Once upon a time, The New Republic ran detailed, empathetic articles about the lives, ideas, and activism of American workers. “They seem easygoing, good-humored and straightforward Southerners,” wrote Edmund Wilson in a 1931 essay about the coal-miners of West Virginia, “so much in the old tradition of American backwoods independence that it is almost impossible to realize they have actually been reduced to the condition of serfs.” In 1966, Maury Maverick Jr. joined a mass march by Texas farmworkers that ended on Labor Day, on the steps of the state capitol building. Two of the Mexican-Americans in that throng, reported Maverick, planned to remain on those steps “to say the rosary eight hours a day, every day in the week until Governor [John] Connally and the legislature pass the $1.25 minimum wage.”
In recent decades, however, the magazine’s interest in the laboring population seems limited to union leaders who struggle to revive their movement and fail at the task. Take, for example, the archived articles by Jonathan Cohn and John B. Judis featured on the website this Labor Day. There were, of course, sound journalistic reasons to profile a new president of the AFL-CIO like John Sweeney or the head of the Teamsters Union (particularly if his name is James P. Hoffa Jr.) or the impact on unions of the rise of the Chinese manufacturing colossus.
Yet the decline of private-sector unionism has been underway for a good four decades now, and a magazine of liberal opinion ought to be devoting at least as much space reporting on and understanding the working people Sweeney and Hoffa have led—and the great majority of workers unrepresented by unions—as it does digging up the inside story on yet another flailing insider.
Why not send Cohn, Judis, or a young staffer (preferably one who speaks Spanish) to interview Wal-Mart employees in some Midwestern exurb, or a laid-off auto worker who attends packed evening classes at a community college after a day of telemarketing (perhaps the most soul-destroying task ever created), or a crew of Latino landscapers as they spruce up the yard of yet another McMansion in Potomac, Maryland, or McLean, Virginia?
These suggestions are motivated by more than intellectual curiosity. The triumphs of liberalism in the twentieth century depended on many factors, but without support from working-class voters of all races in Appalachia, Texas, and beyond, there would have been no New Deal, no Fair Deal, and no Great Society. Since the 1960s, liberalism has been ascending the social scale, to the point where its prominent tribunes are blowhards like Keith Olbermann or bloggers like Marcos Moulitsas, rather than any politician with a following among sales clerks or construction workers. That both our president and vice president spurn the word “liberal,” a name that accurately describes their political views, shows how far liberalism has migrated from the era when it was routinely identified with the working-class core of the nation. In 1939, CIO leader John L. Lewis confidently assured delegates to the group’s annual convention that they were “the main driving force” of all “liberal elements in the community.” While Democrats still depend on the cash and canvassing of union members, would any use such language today
In our current economic crisis, the Americans suffering most are those who have the fewest options and resources. The unemployment rate for people with a high school diploma or less is over 12 percent; for college graduates, it’s well under 4 percent. During the Depression, Democrats talked—and The New Republic published—a good deal about those without a job, or who, like those coal miners, had bosses who paid them in company scrip and routinely ran union organizers out of town. Back then, quite a few journalists and politicians came from working-class families and knew what it was like to be unemployed. But this is no longer the case for most writers and editors of this magazine—or for their counterparts elsewhere in the national media.
On Labor Day, 2010, millions of workers assume that contemporary liberals neither know nor care very much about how they live and what they think. The only way to begin to change that impression is to start covering and analyzing the gritty details of peoples’ jobs and how they cope with not having one. To report on “labor” should mean paying attention to how wage-earners and their families struggle to adapt to a changing economy and culture—in their communities and in the wider world. The future of American liberalism depends to a great extent on how that struggle unfolds.