Throughout the developed world, extreme right wing politics have surfaced in ways not seen since the Second World War. In Europe, parties of the far right have levels of public support that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In the United States, Donald Trump is the “presumptive nominee” of one of our two major political parties. His platform tries to mix the traditional hatreds of the racist right with the economic anxieties of America’s beleaguered middle class.
A couple of days ago, Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, said of Donald Trump, “his unfitness starts with basic issues of temperament. It encompasses the race-baiting, the conspiracy theorizing, the flirtations with violence, and the pathological lying that have been his campaign-trail stock in trade. But above all it is Trump’s authoritarianism that makes him unfit for the presidency.”
Why is this happening?
The roots of the rise of the authoritarian right in democratic societies are complex. But the key issue here in both Europe and America is the capture of politics, and in particular the politics of economic policy, by economic elites.
Unleashing a Monster
Starting around 1980 in the United States and the United Kingdom, and in the 1990s in the larger European Union, the idea that governments should not act to help people in economic pain, or to right imbalances in economic power, became gospel, not just among the right, but among parties that identified themselves as the center-left. The idea was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were going to have a market-based Utopia, where the problems that had plagued market societies in the 20th century were no longer going to exist. So the institutions and politics that had come into being to address the injustices and instabilities of market societies could be dismantled without fear of what would happen next. This fantasy, fueled by the political contributions of the financial sector, went by many names – Neoliberalism, Third Way Politics, the Washington Consensus, and so forth.
But instead of ushering in a market-based era of growth and good feeling, neoliberalism brought back the economic pathologies of the pre-New Deal era—runaway inequality and financial boom and bust cycles on an epic scale. And politically, the neoliberal consensus opened the door to a monster that many had thought had been driven permanently into the outer darkness of democratic politics—the racist, authoritarian right.
In hindsight, this threat has been growing since the 1990s, along with wage stagnation, economic insecurity and economic inequality. But it really got momentum from the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 and the combination of bank bailouts and austerity politics that followed it—leaving in their wake pervasive economic insecurity and the collapse of confidence in government.
Fundamentally, we should have learned from the 1930s that if the public is offered two choices—democracy and austerity, or authoritarianism and jobs—a lot of people will choose authoritarianism. We can condemn those who make that choice from the comfort of our own circumstances, but what we really should understand is that the first responsibility of anyone who seeks to lead a democracy should be to make sure that democratic governance provides economic justice and economic security—that the public is never forced to choose between having an open, democratic society and having economic dignity.
This is why labor movements are so important to stable democracies. In the workplace and in the political system, labor movements demand that democratic politics be wedded to economic justice. We guard the door behind which waits the imprisoned monster of the right-wing authoritarian response to the injustices of market societies.
What We Must Demand
So, how should the global labor movement respond to the rising strength of Donald Trump, or the French Front National, or UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party?
There is a temptation to look for common ground, to bite our tongues and join in the neoliberal consensus in the hopes of gaining powerful allies against right-wing authoritarianism from among the 1 percent.
But this approach will only feed the authoritarian right by proving the argument they make to working people that “the politicians don’t care about you.”
Rather, we must insist that the candidates and political parties we support back an ambitious program for broad-based economic growth driven by rising wages.
The labor movement must demand that politicians we support offer, in place of neoliberalism and austerity, a global New Deal—a plan to get us out of global economic stagnation driven by downward pressures on wages—and into a virtuous cycle of rising wages driving investment that drives productivity.
What are the elements of such a program? Public investment in physical capital and human capital—in infrastructure and education. Strengthened minimum wage and hours rules. Protecting workers’ right to organize and bargain throughout the global economy. And most of all, a commitment to full employment and economic security for all who work.
We must also insist the politicians we support stand clearly against the racism and sexism of the authoritarian right. There can be no triangulation, no compromise on this point. If we are going to guard the door, we must guard the door.
But at the same time, as trade unionists we have to engage in conversations with those among us who are thinking about supporting the authoritarian right out of frustration with a political system that seems to have no interest in their economic pain. And engage and engage. This is the program the AFL-CIO, our community affiliate Working America, and our affiliate unions are committed to. This election will not be won or lost on TV—it will be won or lost in the kitchens and the break rooms and the front porches of America’s working people.
The authoritarian right can be defeated and defeated soundly—but it will require combining ambitious public policies that offer a clear vision of a better life, together with a commitment to the one-on-one organizing that is how we built the labor movement in the first place.
What are the stakes? How serious is the threat to democracy, to open societies, posed by the Front National, or by Donald Trump? We’ll only know if one of them get real power. And that probably tells us all we need to know about what we need to do.
This article is adapted from a speech delivered May 10 by Damon Silvers at a program sponsored by Working America, “Labor, Politics, and the Threat from the Right: A Trans-Atlantic Discussion.”