Saturday, November 16, 2019

Cedric de Leon's "Crisis!: When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule"

Cedric de Leon is Director of the Labor Center and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His areas of expertise are labor, race, political sociology, and comparative historical sociology. He is the author and editor of five books, including most recently, Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule.

De Leon applied the “Page 99 Test” to Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule and reported the following:
Crisis! When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule looks back at the U.S. Civil War to identify the political conditions that give rise to crises of public confidence. I use the lessons of the Civil War to make sense of the Great Depression and the election of Donald Trump.

At the center of each moment is the success or failure of the political establishment to absorb an existential challenge to its power. When the establishment fails to absorb such a challenge, the people withdraw their consent to be ruled and the party system fractures. When the establishment succeeds, the people allow their frustrations to be channeled into party politics and the party system is stabilized.

Page 99 of Crisis! is in the middle of the chapter on the Great Depression. In addition to being the worst economic downturn in American history, the Depression was also a politically tumultuous time. Industrial workers struck in the hundreds of thousands, farmers’ unions fought pitched battles with police in the streets, and communism was popular not just in Chicago, Detroit, and New York, but also in the South. Even to the casual observer, it seemed as if the republic were teetering on the edge of revolution.

But the Democratic Party did something then that few expected: they remade themselves into the party of the forgotten man and inaugurated what we know today as the New Deal. As part of the New Deal, Democrats and progressive Republicans passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which recognized the right of workers to bargain collectively with their bosses.

In doing so, the Democrats absorbed the challenge posed by striking workers and revolutionaries. Page 99 chronicles an especially poignant moment in that process, when labor leaders organized their members to withdraw their support for third parties and back the Democrats instead. Sidney Hillman, for example, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, persuaded his executive board to abandon the idea of an independent labor party in 1936. Hillman warned that under a Republican administration,
“It would be silly to discuss organization in steel and the automobile industry. There would be no room for the CIO [the Congress of Industrial Organizations] … You talk labor party. But can you have a labor party without an economic labor movement? … I say to you that the defeat of Roosevelt and the introduction of a real Fascist administration such as we will have is going to make the work of building a labor movement impossible.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party thus used the New Deal to coopt a once vibrant and politically independent labor movement and thereby stopped the crisis of public confidence from escalating into an all-out revolution.

None of this is to suggest that it is better to contain a crisis than it is to succumb to one. As director of the UMass Amherst Labor Center I can hardly celebrate the cooptation of the labor movement. Nor do I revel in the crisis of public confidence that has gripped the United States in the Trump era. Instead my goal is to understand when and why the political establishment loses the consent to rule.

Crisis! does have important political implications, though, and those I do not shy away from. The fact that our current crisis bears some resemblance to the Civil War and the Great Depression makes a strong historical analysis a matter of utmost urgency. Like the triumph of ethnic nationalism today, the crises over slavery and mass unemployment during the Depression were the result of partisan maneuvers and grassroots movements that divided civil society and made possible the unthinkable. What politicians and social movements do now can mean the difference between fascism and democracy.
Learn more about Crisis!: When Political Parties Lose the Consent to Rule at the Stanford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago by Cedric de Leon.

--Marshal Zeringue