On Monday, we celebrate Labor Day. Well, actually, we enjoy a Monday holiday without asking too many questions about its significance. Seemingly half of us mis-call it Memorial Day.
On Monday, some of us will attend barbeques, wax nostalgic about the end of summer (which for most American kids already happened a while ago), get our fantasy football teams in order, and, you know, not think too hard about the origins of the holiday. Because at this point, many Americans, including both major parties, have put labor unions off their radar entirely.
But what if this year signaled something different? What if we looked back at 2016 as the year the modern Republican Party, to save itself, embraced organized labor?
I realize how crazy that sounds, but hear me out. The smartest parlor game right now – whether online with your friends, or in elite smoke-filled chambers – is guessing which aspects of Trumpism are going to survive into 2020. You can’t be any smarter than looking at this list of Trumpism’s 26 unprecedented aspects and choosing which of those pieces will fit into 2020’s Republican platform; put your money down now, and if you’re right, you can name your consultant fee in four years.
To be clear, the revival of labor unions is not on the list. Instead, we hear a lot of vaguely defined “populism” and “white rage” and such. This is the fault of both major parties, and neither. The new valence of “political correctness” came from both left-wingers and right-wingers using its language codes as wedge issues against the other, escalating to the point where identity politics, ahem, trump other concerns. (This is the least economically focused Presidential election of my lifetime, and the two leading candidates know it, both guilelessly promising to add trillions to the deficit.) With the triumph of narrowly defined identity politics, enough working-class white males feel disenfranchised enough to – maybe – propel Donald Trump to victory in Ohio and Pennsylvania. As of this writing, Trump is only seven points down in Michigan.
It’s a remarkable, and entirely unforeseen, turn of events: the heart of organized labor, Deer Hunter country, appears to be breaking against the Democrats. It would be like the NRA going against Republicans. One could read this as a result of the PC wars compounded by decades of neglect, of Democrats treating labor like its red-headed stepchild, of the Dems insisting on NAFTA and TPP without ameliorative measures for Americans who suffered most for those arrangements.
Any other right-wing party would capitalize on this opportunity. Any European right-wing party would use such a cultural shift to start shoring up support for unions (as they’ve done in places like France and Austria). The modern GOP, so far, won’t, and the reasons aren’t surprising: radical individualism and natural hostility to anything that smacks of socialism.
But, the GOP could get smart.
Watch carefully, if you dare, when leading Republicans go on talk shows to defend their support of Donald Trump. Watch what they say. Inevitably it comes down to “Trump has awakened a great movement in this country.” Or “Trump speaks for Americans who feel forgotten.” Or “Trump has shined a light on an area that most politicians ignore.”
They’re building a bridge to labor, perhaps unknowingly. They’re talking about whites, yes, but they’re also talking about organized labor. They’re hoping to win without actually having to use the word “labor” or “union,” but if and when they lose in November, they may realize that using the word is a more effective strategy than eschewing it.
Democrats have left the GOP plenty of room on the left. The new Democratic Party supports tax breaks for its friends in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street; it does next to nothing for steel-forgers and car-makers and coal-miners and restaurant-workers and hotel employees. There’s a huge opportunity here.
It’s not unprecedented for one party to “poach” an issue from the other. Democrats used to be the party against civil rights. Republicans used to be the more laissez-faire party on abortion. In both cases, party leaders made decisions that were responses to existential threats: adopt this, or perish.
The GOP can handily keep all its other issues: guns, anti-abortion, low taxes, the Bible, anti-immigration, yada yada yada. By changing this one thing, the GOP could potentially be a 51% kind of party again, at least for a few elections. Rhetorically, it can pretend this simply goes hand-in-hand with its (supposed) support of small businesses.
Of course, some of the GOP’s big donors won’t love the change. But there’s something else they hate even more: losers. If the GOP can’t deliver their donors anything, then the donors will simply go to $Hillary anyway, right?
As a certain Presidential candidate likes to say, regarding African-Americans, “What do they have to lose?”
What if the modern GOP started playing Paul Robeson’s “Joe Hill” at rallies? What if it started talking up some of the great labor leaders of the past? Like Emma Goldman? Samuel Gompers? William Green? CESAR CHAVEZ? Photos of Cesar on GOP websites might turn a few heads that the GOP badly needs to turn.
Thanks to political correctness, Republicans already have the sympathies of most of organized labor. But to seize upon their vocal support, the GOP will have to lift more than a sentence or two from Bernie Sanders’ speeches. It will have to adopt an entire policy.
If it doesn’t, 2016 may be seen as the death of the modern GOP.
If it does, 2016 may be seen as the rebirth of the GOP. And we may look back on September 2016 as when the GOP got smart.
Happy Division of Labor Day!