Unintended Consequences

One of the biggest questions about the Democratic Party today – certainly before, but especially since, the November debacle – is how we got to where we are today.

Even without getting bogged down in terms like “Republican-lite” and “neoliberal” and “slaves of Wall Street,” it is clear that there are significant differences in priorities and policies between the northern and urban forces in the party in the pre-Reagan era and now. (I’m focusing on those because the impact of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and Nixon’s Southern Strategy is one precipitating factor, but not the one I’m specifically planning on addressing.)

There is no doubt that there are a good number of us raised in the Democratic Party of old who still believe in its principles, and don’t really think that money or class or social circles have changed that. I’m one of them, sort of. And I’m sure we’re wrong.

My mother’s family came to the United States from one of those towns that couldn’t figure out if it was Russia or Poland in any given week between 1910 and 1920. My dad’s family was at least a generation earlier.

My mother’s brothers, born in Europe – she was the only child born in the United States – were union garment workers; the youngest was a shop steward for ILGWU for his post-WWII working life, and he was a terrific amateur photographer who took some of the memorable “Look for the Union Label” ads.

My dad was born in Brooklyn and went to high school with some of the Murder, Incorporated gangsters; he left high school, and the New York area, in order not to run with them. He picked up the plumbing trade while he was away, joined Plumbers’ and Steamfitters’ Local No. 1 on his return, and was a member till he retired.

Why, then, would the children of my generation forsake the labor movement, go to colleges – top-tier ones in some cases – and go into intellectual, professional, and technical businesses, leveraging upward class mobility and (from a working-class perspective) mixing with and collaborating with the enemy? And why did we think we could do that and preserve what we knew as the party’s values?

Because it’s what our union-member working-class parents wanted for us, drilled into us.

I recall a conversation with my dad while I was in high school – and there weren’t that many to recall – when he said that if I ended up working with my hands he’d disown me. And he was only partly kidding.

His worldview, and the notion of upward class mobility, was built on the narrative of America as a nation of immigrants: that as we rose, there would always be the next immigrant wave to take our parents’ place doing the heavy lifting and building sweat equity for their children.

And so on.

But that mindset didn’t take into account those with multi-generational connections to the land and their families’ work. The same forces that favored upward mobility and the intellectual class built walls between the former working-class allies; while many of the not-purely-economic principles remained in common – the sense of cultural fairness that in many ways emerged as identity politics – the gap in economic principles between those who climbed and those who didn’t became profound.

(Yes, this is a purely white – and Asian and to a lesser degree Latino – scenario I’m describing. Blacks were structurally and strategically kept from participating to any useful extent in that upward mobility, and in the process, the gulf between communities that had at one time at least somewhat been allies, or at least, non-opponents, grew wider.)

So we attended colleges with, and socialized with, the upper class. And we followed them into business. And we dated them and married them – at least, when not still blocked as Not Our Kind, Dear. (Not really surprising, then, that Caroline Kennedy and Chelsea Clinton both married urban East Coast Jews.)

So the common economic principles of Democrats become muddled, with tension between self-interest and core values tearing us apart where no gulf existed before. And with a political system into which more and more money is dumped from the right – from forces that are both economically and socially regressive – we call upon those with whom we have common ground to fund us, and we shift the focus to be much narrower on the parts on which we can agree – the social, cultural, and identity issues. And because the world of Citizens United and the Koch Brothers challenges us to, we believe that we can count on goodwill to align with and take funding from those who at least went to make some things better – though not to upset the class structure in the process.

Eventually, though, the fabric tears. And I’m not sure that it can be put even loosely back together without some fundamental self-examination on both sides. The ok-I’ll-concede-centrists need to consider that our principles are at odds with our self-interest and that both cannot be accommodated fully. But the principled left also needs to acknowledge that when it acts from principle it is also to some extent acting in self-interest so that its purity is not so pure after all. And, ultimately, both cadres must find a path to the good not being strangled by the desire for the perfect.

Back to my initial question, then: why did we abandon the principles of our parents? Because it’s what our parents wanted.

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