Recent events in Charlottesville have shaken the nation. I don’t think many predicted that in 2017 we would need a national conversation about growing fascism in our country and the role of the President of the United States in fostering it. If there was any label that Americans – both Democrats and Republicans — could agree was opprobrious, I had thought it was fascist. But, here we find ourselves, being rightly lectured by world leaders, the United Nations, and the civil rights community across our own country that we need to get a handle on the inescapable truth that the events of Charlottesville revealed — that we have a fascism problem in our country and that it is out of the shadows, made comfortable enough by our current president to march down our streets, loud and proud (and often violent).
The question that many of us have been asking since Election Day — “how did we get here” — has taken on greater urgency in the wake of Charlottesville. There has been much thoughtful writing and commenting on the root causes of this now evident phenomenon. I recently came across an article by Senator Robert Wagner, primary sponsor of our bedrock federal labor law, the National Labor Relations Act, that got me thinking about an unexplored possible contributing factor – whether there is a plausible relationship between the decline in the labor movement and the vulnerability of our population to fascism.
The framework of this argument was articulated by Senator Wagner in a May 1937 article in the New York Times Magazine. The NLRA had passed in July 1935 but questions about its future as a result of challenges to its constitutionality lingered until April 1937. As Senator Wagner was witnessing the rise of a fascist power, he described his ideal industrial state. One attribute of his ideal vision was a strong labor movement, bringing the experience of collective bargaining to the American working class.
In addition to the many economic arguments that Wagner made in defense of the NLRA was his argument that the process of being a member of a union and engaging in collective bargaining in the workplace gave Americans the experience of participating in a democratic process in a way that had become remote in their political life. He lamented that politics had been “impersonalized” and that the nature of the nation’s problems – too big, complex and fast-moving – made it difficult for ordinary Americans to get involved in addressing them. Thus, in his view, the workplace became the more likely venue for the “expression of the democratic impulse”.
Most interestingly for thinking about how to rebuild our “democratic impulses” in the Trump era, Wagner made the connection between this workplace practice of democracy and the protection of our national democracy from fascism. He said:
Let men become the servile pawns of their masters in the factories of the land and there will be destroyed the bone and sinew of resistance to political dictatorship. Fascism begins in industry, not in government. The seeds of communism are sown in industry, not in government. But let men know the dignity of freedom and self expression in their daily lives, and they will never bow to tyranny in any quarter of their national life.
Obviously, labor unions give workers the experience of the mechanics of democracy – they vote whether to be represented or not, they have a say in choosing leaders of the union and the policies they put forward, and they carry the responsibility of holding those leaders accountable. Those skills and experiences are all transferable to political democracy. In addition, a strong labor movement historically has played a direct role in our democratic process in supporting progressive candidates and policies.
But I think that Wagner was getting at something more salient as we think about how we got to where we are today – not just with white supremacists feeling emboldened, but also with an ascendant economic policy regime that serves the interests of the very few yet very powerful and ignores the equities of the many. He was talking about the importance of learning to speak truth to power and having the courage to stand together against political and economic bullies. The reality is that at the same time the labor movement has declined, the political and economic bullies increasingly have come to dominate our democracy.
Correlation is not causation and I cannot purport to have made a historical study of the relationship so I cannot profess to know that the decline of the labor movement has in fact contributed to the rise of American fascism and explains why it has taken so long for good people in our country, who still constitute the majority, to stand up to these dark forces. But as we catalog all that we have lost with the decline of the labor movement – fairer wages, a check on income inequality, a strong progressive political voice – we should consider Wagner’s warning that we also may have lost a necessary nurturer of our democratic impulse.