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Could Surging Pandemic-Era Populism Help Forge A Left-Right Labor Coalition?


As the pandemic exacerbates existing tension between elite and working-class Americans, some on the left have sensed an opportunity to revitalize the labor movement, tapping into deep frustrations among suffering workers desperate for change. This comes amid increasingly robust realignment efforts on the right, a movement sparked by President Trump’s unconventional conservative politics that often rejects limited government dogma.

Since 2015, Trump and Sanders have stirred populist discontent with the neoliberal establishment on both sides of the ideological divide, creating and revealing overlap on policies like trade and Big Tech. As the country reels from this pandemic, could a realigning right find common ground with the pro-union left?

I posed that question and a series of follow-ups to Saagar Enjeti and Matt Stoller. Enjeti hosts HillTV’s “Rising with Saagar and Krystal” and the Hudson Institute’s “Realignment” podcast. He’s also the co-author of “The Populist’s Guide to 2020.” Stoller is a researcher at the American Economic Liberties Project, writer of the newsletter BIG, and author of “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.”

Enjeti and Stoller were given the same set of questions in mid-April. Their answers to each are included together below.

What would a left-right labor coalition look like?

Enjeti: A left-right coalition in an ideal state would be a good faith attempt by populists on both sides to put aside disagreement on cultural issues and work together in times of economic distress to leverage power over establishment leaders in both parties. I often say that the most bipartisan areas of agreement in Washington are what scare me most, and so possibly the only way to counter that is with a new type of bipartisanship.

Stoller: I think it would look like some of the coalitions of the 1920s and 1930s, when there were populists in both parties working together to constrain railroads, utilities, and bank holding companies. The coalition would have to start out with policy agreements, but fundamentally it has to be oriented around a shared vision whose members can stand up to the tug of bad faith partisan institutional arrangements.

It’ll probably incorporate a national security frame, as both sides realize that China is a dangerous existential threat to our way of life.

What policies would it push? What would its goals be?

Enjeti: The goal of any such coalition would be to leverage member voting/outside pressure over the establishment leaders of parties during legislative negotiations. An example of a policy that both populist sides agree upon at this time is repatriating U.S. supply chains from China.

Stoller: Basically to get rid of the Bobs in “Office Space,” which is to say, McKinsey.

The gist of such a coalition would be oriented around disempowering middlemen to make sure that people who work for a living get to control the way that work is done. Wall Street, for example, is a middleman industry that matches savings with investment. Should banks exist? Yes. Should a small group of financiers structure how all financial arrangements are done? Uh, no.

Amazon is also a middleman. Should Amazon exist? Yes. Should Amazon, Google, and Facebook have power to pick winners and losers? No. Same with Disney, Monsanto, meatpackers, etc. private equity, etc. All of these are middlemen seizing power over productive capacity. They should exist, but they should serve as sort of public utilities, not as dictators of commerce.

The goal of a coalition would be to make sure that ownership means both control and responsibility, not control without responsibility. There are a host of policies to push, like more assertive antitrust policy and merger controls, changes in bankruptcy laws, shifts in banking laws, government procurement, and lending.

I think one of the more outlines for reform is coming from the small business lending program. Private equity owned firms are having to change their charters to quality for the loans, to remove control by financiers over the business.

Another very easy area for reform is to get rid of non-compete agreements and no-poach agreements for workers. Those are just crazy.

Then there’s the fight against Big Tech, Amazon, Google and Facebook, which is really a question of whether we are going to have small business and independent voices in our society. If we don’t win that fight, it’s over for all of us. You can already see the free press collapsing, where the business model for local journalism, and right and left journalism falling apart.

What compromises would the left reasonably make to the right? What compromises would the right have to make to the left?

Enjeti: The left would have to concede that not all Republicans are racist and the right would have to concede that its generally agreed upon economic orthodoxy is both incorrect and wildly unpopular with American voters.

The chief reason I am not particularly optimistic that any left-right coalition is possible is because the commanding heights of American culture hold the “Republicans are racist” view so widely that it will be nearly impossible for any leftist to offer an ounce of good faith to the right without being denounced as a racist enabler. It is much easier (as evidenced by the emergence of Josh Hawley, American Compass, American Affairs, National Affairs, and an entire new generation of right leaning folks in D.C.) for the right to move left on economics than the left to move right on culture.

Stoller: The left will have to rethink what it understands as labor. Labor is not just a group of industrial or service oriented union members, it’s farmers, artists, workers, engineers, businesspeople, and small business people too. It will also have to move away from the wokeness frame towards a conception of citizenship, to stop obsessing over victimization as the only legitimate place to make moral claims. They will also have to actually learn about business, and stop fetishizing the expansion of bureaucracy as a goal in and of itself.

As a corollary, they have to stop being so obsequious towards global institutions and the pathetic mewling of European leftists. “We have to work with our allies…” is a crutch for not thinking about geopolitical power. Borders exist, and borders are important, as we are seeing with export prohibitions on vital equipment and travel bans throughout the world.

And while deep-seated skepticism over the use of American military force is important, it is critical to build a vision that doesn’t rely on utopian silliness like seeking a global civil society. China has a big military and big economy, and their leaders mean us ill. A war would be a very bad idea, but not thinking about China is a way to become a Chinese vassal state.

The left also has to reckon with Obama’s catastrophic legacy, and a Democratic Party that largely does not believe in doing democratic deliberation through politics, but worships celebrity and star f-cking. They have to have an honest discourse about race, instead of helping Wall Street use the moral currency of tolerance.

The right has to address a real problem with racism. Racism is one of the core axes of American politics, and is integrated with every social problem we are trying to address. Populist coalitions have always foundered on racial grievances. I don’t think the right realizes how their own behavior influences the left.

Take for instance how ICE handled the massive influx of refugees. While the rhetoric on the left about concentration camps was overheated and annoying, that doesn’t justify defending obviously cruel behavior. Stephen Miller’s seeming delight in cruelty, aside from being a self-evident moral travesty, undermines coalition-building, because there were very few voices on the right contravening what Miller was trying to do.

The right also has to reckon with the real dishonesty, bad faith, and corruption from Trump and the cult of personality that has developed around him. While Trump has some instincts I respect on trade and his disdain for excessive worship of multilateralism, he is cross-pressured by Wall Street actors that are myopic, corrupt, and straight-up hostile to American interests. Trump’s approach to China has foundered on his unwillingness to actually force corporations to move their supply chains back. Pharma is lobbying to keep supply chains in China!

The right also has to really start attacking monopoly power as a core problem. Antitrust division chief Makan Delrahim is letting big business run the show, instead of taking on genuine threats to our liberty presented by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on and so forth. The idea that Big Tech has an anti-conservative bias immediately shows those of us who pay attention to corporate power that you aren’t serious about the problem.

It’s not that there isn’t ideological bias, it’s that it’s an incredibly minor aspect of a much more serious threat, which is the unprecedented centralization over the control of information in the hands of a few people. Using the ideological bias argument, instead of noting the collapse of ad revenue to everyone, leaves open the question of whether the right wants to break up their concentrated power, or just wants to repurpose that power for the right.

There’s also a significant lack of expertise on the populist right for areas of law like antitrust, consumer protection, banking, and regulatory policy. Where there is policy expertise, like in the trade area, Trump has succeeded with new trade agreements. But the lack of expertise elsewhere subverts a populist agenda.

Trump, for instance, has been assertive about wanting to make things in America. But his Federal Trade Commission officials, like Christine Wilson, Joe Simons, and Noah Phillips, are letting fraudsters off the hook for lying about Made in USA products. Relatedly, there’s a massive and dangerous corporatist set of institutions on the right who set the tone for the Republican Party and are heavily integrated with leaders like Mitch McConnell. You are going to have to fight against those institutions.

In terms of foreign policy, the right is simply too militaristic and nationalist in its rhetoric and posture. This is not America of the 1950s coming off a war against the Nazis. The war in Iraq killed a half a million people; that’s an obvious moral wrong, and so it’s not reasonable to pretend America is always the good guy.

To be more practical, intelligence leaks about the origin of the coronavirus aren’t credible, and that’s a strategic problem. And while multilateral organizations are really problematic today, the right way to address that is to restore them, build new ones, and strengthen American diplomatic power.

Why or why not is the post-coronavirus moment ripe for this kind of collaboration?

Enjeti: I am of two minds on this question. Before the coronavirus crisis I would have said it was likely necessary for the right to try and build a left labor coalition to push worker friendly policies if it were to prevail. In the aftermath of the crisis I am not so sure anymore.

Public polling on the issue of U.S.-China supply chains is now at 80 percent support. With both the establishment and progressive left caught up in the notion that pushing back against this is somehow racist, there doesn’t seem to be any present evidence that these are more than a handful of serious people on the left worth working with to meaningfully enact worker friendly policy.

It may be better for the American right to instead police orthodoxy within its own party than extend good will to a group that seems dead set on denouncing the other side as irredeemable racists.

Stoller: Crises always clarify priorities. I think the small business lending program is a great example of what a populist coalition could build on, whereas the secretive Fed programs are a great opportunity to fight against something together.

The far left is entangled with the anti-Trump Resistance, while realignment conservatives tend to champion the president. Will the Trump issue ultimately be an impediment to cooperation?

Enjeti: I believe the Trump issue is by far secondary to the broader cultural issues I discuss above.

Stoller: Yes. The left hasn’t fully broken with Obama and the paranoia of the resistance fraudsters, but that same dynamic exists on the right. It’s really hard to get a Republican to break with Trump on something, so Wall Street can always break the coalition from the right by going through Trump. At the same time Wall Street seems to control every Democrat, so they can do the same thing from the left.

Realignment conservatives would likely find basis for a new labor movement in nationalism. Would that be an impediment for the left? Will any pro-labor progressives embrace nationalism?

Enjeti: I’m not sure its possible for progressives to embrace nationalism. So much of their ideology and political obsessions are grounded in the idea that the worst actor in the global system is the American nation which they blame for the plight of marginalized communities both at home and abroad. Any recognition of borders or a nation-state among modern day progressives is by definition exclusionary, which is not a concept they are capable of grappling with.

Stoller: Nationalism is a scary way to think about organizing a society, because it has a proto-fascist backstory. But I think patriotism and honor is respected on both sides. The left says things like “dissent is patriotic,” so the subtext of celebrating America as a land of liberty is there. I think every day it’s less and less an impediment to build a coalition based on being patriotic. We just have to make sure that we define patriotism in a way that isn’t ethno-centric or excessively unilateral.

How will the left-right divide on issues of social justice not be a significant roadblock?

Enjeti: See answers to previous questions

Stoller: I don’t think it is social justice, I think it is a particular way of talking about social justice, a.k.a. wokeness, that is a problem.

More fundamentally, we have to find a way to have a good faith back and forth. Political leaders have to be able to admit when they are wrong without being destroyed for it. Trying new things demands errors and mistakes.

Why would significant chunks of the right support this kind of action against the free market system?

Enjeti: Significant chunks of right-leaning voters have always been open to action against the free market system. The problem has been that the political institutions tasked with defending their interests in Washington instead have acted on behalf of a narrow few donors and interest organizations that depart significantly from the voters they purport to belong to the same party too. The misalignment of representation between the wealthy donor class of the Republican Party and its actual voters was exposed and widened in the 2016 election.

The goal for right-leaning populists is to align political institutions like think tanks, congressional leadership, media, and more with the actual voting base of the Republican Party.

Stoller: The basic con perpetrated on all of us by corporatists is to assert that there is a natural order based on these things called ‘free markets,’ with this beast known as government intervening using the disgusting thing known as politics. The reality is that markets are political institutions before they are economic ones.

The rules of markets, whether those of farmer’s market or derivatives market, are political. A market where fraud is legal is different than one where it is not. Neither one is ‘natural,’ both are creatures of how a specific society chooses to order the freedom of action by citizens. Even the idea of enforcing contracts or chartering corporations, with is the very basis of our modern market-based society, is based on the use of state power in the form of courts.

There’s a laziness on the left where they hand wave away details and political problems by saying ‘oh that’s just capitalism.’ I think that laziness is mirrored on the right with the acceptance of the idea that the political choices we have made to order our commerce are simply ordained by a higher being, a.k.a. the ‘free market.’ In reality, both the lazy left and lazy right are accepting the turn towards overweening bureaucracy, in either the form of big government or big monopolies.
Populists should understand that either we structure markets to enable liberty, or to subvert it. That’s our choice, and there’s no avoiding it.