The Priorities of the Left

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 1:06 AM EST

My post earlier today about the decline of organized labor and the rise of rights-based activism within the post-60s liberal community provokes an obvious question: was this a good thing?

Obviously it was good for African-Americans and women and gays and others who benefited from it. But it wasn't so good for the economic fortunes of the working and middle classes. And that was almost certainly the tradeoff we made. In the 70s and beyond, probably 80% of the money and emotional energy that sustained the Democratic Party came from environmental and rights activists. But within the Republican Party, money and energy were about evenly divided between social conservatives and the business community. What happened after that was unsurprising: on social issues, where 80% of the liberal party was fighting 50% of the conservative party, liberals made a lot of progress. On economic issues, where 20% of the liberal party was fighting 50% of the conservative party, liberals steadily lost ground. And when Democrats decided to become more "business friendly" in the late 80s, we lost even more ground. That's how things played out, and under the circumstances that's pretty much exactly how you'd expect them to play out.

But if you could travel back in time and change things, would you? Would you prefer that organized labor had retained its traditional power broker role in the Democratic Party and fought the rise of corporate power and middle class wage stagnation more effectively, even if it meant that progress on social issues had been quite a bit slower than it was? Would you?

At the time this was all unfolding, I don't think anyone consciously realized the choice that was being made. But even now, when that choice is clearer in hindsight, I don't know if it was the right one. Comments?