The Dilemma of American Politics’ Phantom Limb and How to Fix It
By: Colin O’Neill, Opinion Writer
Looking at the American political landscape, particularly its political parties, I have long felt that there is something missing. A phantom limb so to speak, a party that should exist but just doesn’t; the phantom pain of its absence reminding me of how our political possibilities have been severely limited.
Unlike most other industrialized democracies throughout the world, the U.S. does not have a labor, social democratic or socialist party. No party with direct historical roots in the country’s labor unions. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has the New Democratic Party (NDP), a social democratic party with direct ties to the country’s largest labor federation — The Canadian Labour Congress. So why not us? Why are there union-affiliated major parties in Canada, Brazil, Western Europe, Scandinavia and South Africa, but not in the U.S.?
Some, like Senator Mitt Romney, would argue that it is because the U.S. is a “center-right country,” but this is incorrect. Polling from Gallup shows that 65% of Americans support labor unions and various polls have also consistently shown that between 53% and 70% of Americans support policies like Medicare for All.
The reasons why there is no labor party in the U.S. are a matter of historical conditions, not political culture. Prior to the 1930s, support for left-wing alternative parties (LWAPs) like the Populists and Socialist Party, was actually quite high. Many members of these parties were elected to state legislatures, Congress and governorships. Socialist Party nominee Eugene V. Debs even won nearly a million votes for president. McGill University’s Barry Eidlin finds greater support for LWAPs in the U.S. than in Canada between 1867 and WWI.
The lack of a labor party in America and the presence of one in socioeconomically similar Canada has largely to do with the differing responses by each country’s major parties when LWAPs began to be truly formidable during the Great Depression. The Liberals and Conservatives, Canada’s two largest parties, responded to this surge of workers and farmers organizing along class lines into new parties by attempting confrontation; America’s major parties, particularly the Democrats, took the road of co-optation. The Canadian parties aggravated and alienated striking workers and protesting farmers who were hit hard by the Depression, making room for the rise of the NDP. Across the border in the U.S. however, the unprecedentedly pro-worker policies in the New Deal brought the signature issues of LWAPs into the mainstream, making those parties less relevant to many voters and bringing those voters into the New Deal–era Democratic Party, a contradictory cross-class coalition of labor unions, minorities and farmers on one side and big business and segregationists on the other.
Divisions within the labor movement also contributed to the lack of a labor party and increased the likelihood of Democratic co-option of the left. The AFL, which was composed of craft unions, collaborated with employers to prevent CIO organizing of all workers in the same industry into one union regardless of trade. This divide put the CIO in a position where it had to defensively ally with the Democrats. The two would eventually merge into the modern AFL-CIO in 1955, but most leftists had been purged from the movement by this point due to the Second Red Scare, undermining the chances of a labor party.
Eighty unions started a party in 1996 but struggled with fundamental questions including whether they should contest elections and whether it was premature to start a party. The 1996 Labor Party suspended operations in 2007, having elected no candidates to office. This is unsurprising as the labor movement has been in decline as the result of the Taft-Hartley Act which limited union tactics and allowed for “right-to-work” laws that eviscerate unions’ funds, among other factors. Union membership, as of 2020, is 10.8%, historically low from its peak at 34.8% in 1954.
Most of the New Deal compromises to the working class have been rolled back and other countries got so much more because of their labor parties. Canada has single-payer health insurance and Britain has that and also nationalized hospitals. These gains are attributable to the NDP and the Labour Party, respectively. Nordic countries have comprehensive welfare states thanks to social democratic governments.
While recent years have seen leftist candidates like AOC get elected to office by running inside the Democratic Party, this strategy is unsustainable. Just as policies can be co-opted by the major parties, making nominal concessions to stave off more ambitious demands so can politicians. I would argue AOC has been somewhat co-opted through her work within and institutional pressure from the Democrats, which remains a contradictory coalition of working-class voters and the Chamber of Commerce with a dash of woke posturing thrown in for branding’s sake. AOC has gone from stating that her and Biden would not be in the same party in any other country to stating his border policy is more humane than Trump’s even though there are still kids in cages. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has just rebranded the cages as “migrant facilities for children.” Nothing has fundamentally changed, just as Biden promised his wealthy donors in 2019, yet AOC asserts he has exceeded progressives’ expectations. No $15 an hour minimum wage, no emergency Medicare for All during the pandemic, just kids in cages, airstrikes, corporate welfare and Pentagon budget increases. We must not allow politicians to push us to be less ambitious: we must push them to be more so.
We must always remember to put our principles ahead of support for any politician or political organization and hold them accountable. I am quite literally a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America and chair of its Canisius chapter. However, I do not support DSA’s policy of working within the Democratic Party and “eventually building an independent working-class party,” as there has been a lot of working within the Democrats and virtually no institutional efforts towards actually building a new party. I know members of DSA have strong principles, but so did the 1890s Populists, 1930s labor organizers and the 1960s left, all of which were eventually consumed by the Democrats — the oldest still active capitalist party in the world — nullifying their power. We should heed these warnings from history.
I am also aware that there are many barriers to building a labor party in the United States, but there are concrete steps we can take now to build an eventually viable labor party. Our current electoral system entrenches a two-party duopoly because legislative districts elect the candidate with the most votes. While this may seem fair, it leaves voters who voted for other candidates no representation, regardless of how close the election was. This can be resolved by adopting what is known as proportional representation, where the proportion of votes received by parties is proportional to the number of seats received, or ranked choice voting, which allows voters to vote for third parties while also voting for their favored main party as a backup. These would give the labor party a foot in the door, and small successes would only prove to voters it’s viability over time. Aside from these electoral barriers, there’s the issue of institutional support. There cannot be a strong labor party without a strong labor movement, and as stated prior union membership is at historic lows. However, there is reason for optimism. Unionization attempts — like the Bessemer Amazon vote — are on the rise. Labor militancy is also on the rise, as evidenced by the 2018 teachers’ strikes.
Students can help revitalize the labor movement by helping with union organizing and through the “school-to-union pipeline,” where students are encouraged to find union work after college, like a pre-law major like myself getting a unionized public defender job. If this is not feasible for you, you can still help to unionize your non-union workplace.
Whatever you choose to do during your college years and beyond, I hope what I have written here has helped you recognize the pain of American politics’ phantom limb. Why we don’t have a labor party, why we need one and how to build it going forward.