On Pluralism, Bernie Sanders, and the Fight for 15

In one of the hot-take pieces on the Democratic primary many people are talking about today, Jonathan Chait — fresh off being certified as a wonk by Paul Krugman — distinguishes between what he calls Hillary Clinton’s “pluralist” approach and Bernie Sanders’ “statist” vision.

Sanders did not so much dispute the efficacy of Dodd-Frank as to broaden the question. His fixation with Wall Street is not systemic risk — i.e., the chance that another crash will trigger an economic meltdown. He frames Wall Street as a problem of political economy, not economy. Wall Street is so big and rich that it is inherently dangerous, and will by its nature corrupt the political system.

Clinton does not believe that. Her political ideal is what some political scientists have called “pluralism.” A pluralist politics venerates the careful balancing of competing interests. It is okay to bring business to the bargaining table as long as there is also a place for labor, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and other countervailing interests. Clinton’s Democratic Party, and Obama’s, is one in which pluralist agreements struck important progress not only in financial reform but also health care, public investment, green energy, and other priorities.

Sanders does not completely reject the products of these pluralist compromises. (He grudgingly accepts them as worthwhile, piecemeal steps.) What he rejects is the political model that treats pluralism as the normal model of political action. Sanders believes the interest of the public is not divided, it is united, and only the corrupt influence of big business has thwarted it. He consequently vows to smash its power through a combination of a mass upsurge in political activism and campaign-finance reform.


A Democratic Party as monolithically statist as the modern Republican Party is anti-government — one in which any defense of free markets or business is dismissed — would look very different than anything within American historical experience. After decades of this being taken for granted, it has finally become necessary to defend moderation as a governing creed.

Let’s ignore how Chait caricatures Sanders for the moment, warning of an awful “statist” Democratic party in which “any defense of free markets or business is dismissed,” and take his view of Hillary’s pluralism on its face.

In Hillary’s Democratic party, citizens exercise their influence through various interest groups. There’s business (presented here as a monolith), and there there’s “labor, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and other countervailing interests,” and together they compromise on incrementalist policy about which everyone gets a say.

That is, in fact, how the mainstream Democratic party organizes itself, and Hillary’s endorsement by virtually all of the organizations deemed to represent one of these players reflects it. She does have support from business, but she also has support from League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, and other big organizations. (There’s a breathtaking list of her endorsements here — you have to scroll down quite a way to get to the institutional endorsements.) This is what that “establishment organization” hubbub was about: that Hillary has the support of the groups deemed to represent the various pluralities of the Democratic party.

On that list are most of the national labor unions. That’s not surprising. Hillary is (still) a favorite to win nomination and after that the general election, and all these organizations are ensuring they’ll have a seat at that pluralist table Hillary sets (though it’s not clear what the unions that backed Obama early in 2008 really got out of the deal; he certainly didn’t deliver the Employee Free Choice Act, as he had suggested he’d try to do). Union leaders endorse early because it ensures they’ll have the ear of the presumptive president.

Even there, as some have noted, a few unions that let members decide who to endorse endorsed Bernie.

But here’s the thing. Just 11.1% of workers were in a union last year. And to the extent that the Democratic party’s pluralism is mediated through these national organizations, it means the views of workers as such are largely represented by organizations they don’t have any stake in, organizations whose workers make 26% more than non-union workers. And we wonder why so few of these workers show up to vote for Democrats?

I asked Chait on Twitter where these more marginalized workers would get their seat at the pluralist table and thus far haven’t gotten an answer.

This question is probably most pressing with regards to the most exciting labor organizing in recent years: the SEIU-backed Fight for 15, which has found a model that works for franchises, and which has also notched a number of key local wins for a higher minimum wage. Importantly, where it succeeds in raising wages for an entire city, people within and outside of the movement structure will do better. But a lot of workers who would be incorporated at the pluralist table by a push for a living minimum wage are not and would not be SEIU members.

Fight for 15 is an issue where there’s a clear policy difference between Hillary, who favors raising the minimum wage to $12 (which is not a living wage in many areas of this country) and Bernie, who enthusiastically supports the $15 goal.

Nevertheless, SEIU endorsed Hillary. Jacobin explained the logic shortly after the endorsement.

If Clinton is going to win — because she has to win — then delaying a primary endorsement has no upside. The union would simply jeopardize its spot on Clinton’s crowded list of favors to return.

But the access argument is also unpersuasive. In 2007 the union was divided internally over whether to back John Edwards or Obama. In the end the national union allowed its state affiliates to go their separate ways, only uniting behind Obama after Edwards had dropped out after the first round of primaries. Opting not to come out early for Obama didn’t prevent the union from mobilizing members and resources for the general election. Similarly, SEIU will be indispensable to the Democratic nominee’s chances in November, so it is hard to argue that Clinton could shut the union out.


Comments from SEIU’s largest local suggest the union is perfectly happy to see Sanders pressing Clinton to take more left-leaning positions. But the labor movement still sees the election solely through the prism of its outcome — not in terms of what Sanders’s candidacy represents, or makes possible.

That narrow electoralism could end up harming Fight for 15 — not just the union’s most important campaign, but arguably the most important labor battle happening today. SEIU’s decision to provide the financial largesse for Fight for 15 comes from the indisputably correct observation that unless the labor movement can bring millions of low-wage workers into its fold, organized labor is scheduled for expiry.

Yet before the endorsement announcement, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry toldAl Jazeera that though the union is expecting “candidates up and down the ticket who are willing to get in the streets and champion this demand,” support for a $15 minimum wage is not a “litmus test” but an “aspirational demand.”

Over the last three years, SEIU has spent tens of millions of dollars and galvanized the labor movement around an inspiring fight. It has justified this enormous expenditure to its members by correctly arguing that they won’t be able to protect and improve their own standards unless something is done to boost the wages of the worst paid workers.

But if the union actually believed it could win on this issue — if it believed it could lead — then a litmus test is exactly what it would be. Clinton would just have to get in line. Members and non-members have shown that they are willing to fight for $15 and a union. What does it say to them if they now are asked to knock on doors calling for $12 and a Clinton?

That is, Hillary’s pluralist table, which leaves little space for the overwhelming majority of workers who aren’t represented by a union, had already dealt away the key policy platform the key voice pulling up to that table has pursued.

Partly that’s a testament to the desperation of unions — that they’re willing to trade their key issues even to get a seat at the table, and partly that’s a testament to the lack of representation for most workers who might sit there.

But having set the table like that, there’s little prospect the large numbers of workers who haven’t been as active in Democratic politics of late will have much sway in face of the powerful banks who don’t appear to have traded away key issues for their time with Hillary.

Notably: these lower income voters, along with the more widely noted younger voters, are precisely those whom Bernie is winning (though as the primary moves to more racially diverse states, that is expected to change).

There’s a key failing in the pluralist vision painted by Chait (even taking it on its face): even to win a seat at the table, labor — and really just that fraction of workers who enjoy union representation — had already started compromising, well before the bankers even sat down for their scotch.

And no matter how this primary ends up, that’s not something that’s sustainable, particularly not in the wake of the financial disaster that pushed so many people closer to the edge. If Clinton is going to win with a pluralist table, there needs to be, for both electoral and social justice reasons, a seat, a lot of seats, for all the workers who have fallen by the electoral wayside in recent years. Bernie has gotten their attention. What does Hillary plan to do to keep it?

30 replies
    • emptywheel says:

      Important point. Explains the desperation to have the most likely candidate picking the next SCOTUS justices. But also why they’d trade away that $15 goal.

  1. Phil Perspective says:

    What does Hillary plan to do to keep it?

    Nothing? As you’ve said, Mary Kay Henry is willing to sell her soul for a measly chair at the table. Not even a concrete promise of action. She is cutting the legs out from under the $15/hr movement. And people wonder why unions are likely screwed.

  2. Ed Walker says:

    Bill Clinton did nothing for Unions, and the neoliberal third-way Dems can’t point to one damn thing they have done for unions. That’s what makes this so sad. They cling to HRC who won’t do card check, won’t force her nominees onto the NLRB, and won’t appoint Supreme Court or Federal Court judges who give a rat’s ass about unions.

  3. RUKidding says:

    Henry Kissinger has also endorsed Hillary Clinton. Is his name on that list? I don’t have time to read it.
    HRC will do nothing, absolutely nothing, to help unions… just like Obama has done sweet FA. HRC is Wall Street’s candidate. HRC is the MIC candidate. HRC is the Alphabets candidate. HRC is the candidate of the Hedge Fund guys.
    But HRC is a “progressive” bc she has lady parts. She said so! Just last night.

  4. bevin says:

    ” It is okay to bring business to the bargaining table as long as there is also a place for labor, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and other countervailing interests. ”

    Yeah, right.
    Those Walmart Board Meetings with Mrs C carrying the Union message right in the family’s faces must have been something. Pluralism in action.

  5. orionATL says:

    senator sander’s $15/hr and secretary clinton’s $12/hr are both just political signaling – come-ons to attract customers and nothing more.

    sanders and clinton are two merchants sitting on mats in the marketplace, both selling oranges.

    at some future time there might be an opportunity for a democratic president to work to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25. if that time comes, he/she will have to have the co-operation of the other four power centers in washington:

    1) the house of representatives

    2) the senate

    3) the supreme court

    4) the k-street lobbyists

    let’s see now, $7.25 to $15, just exactly how will we work that one out?
    it can be done, but not in one fell swoop.

    for the duration of the presidential campaign, all minimum-wage talk is just political enticement.

    of coarse the minimum wage could be raised in any state, but, sad to say, a large number of states have one or more republican legislatures and/or governors, thanks to meticulous, long-range political planning that the all-talk dems have not come close to matching.

  6. orionATL says:

    one could imagine a set of federal policies to deal with many problems, including poverty-and-below income. such a plan would require much less sly political calculation and much, much, more political courage, but would be easily doable under existing federal programs were there the political will:

    – all children and their caretakers are guaranteed minimum standards of food and medical care. all are guaranteed an education thru college.

    – all adults are guaranteed a minimum income, adults with dependent children or elders to be compensated additionally as needed.

    – “guaranteed income” would include the individual’s or family’s earned income supplemented by federal subsidies to a predetermined poverty-avoiding level.

    – the moral basis for this is that a nation takes care of all its citizens equally at some minimal level.

    – the economic basis is the macroeconomic principal that the more people there are spending more money, the better the economy performs (assuming adequate production to avoid inflation).

    – the “national security” :) basis is that children become adults and workers. the healthier, physically and emotionally, they are, and the better educated, the better for the nation’s future.

    • orionATL says:

      as a nation we are actually a lot closer to being able to put together a series of federal programs (and state programs were willing) that will do what i outlined in #9.

      wic – women, infants, and children program provides prenatal and infant care and food.

      food stamps – a long standing program providing a basis to build on against food insecurity

      “poverty level” economic calculations are old hat and thus easily available for providing guidance on income and income supplements.

      income tax programs to help provide low income relief are well-established.

      disability income – well-established

      social security payments provide a model for large scale payments

      medicaid provides health card for poorer

      medicare, again a well-established program providing assisstance to millions.

      perhaps it’s my ignorance, but the missing part involves child and parent education programs. (charter schools are not the answer)

      political imagination and political will could tie all these programs together to provide food, medical, educational, and income security for every citizen.

      now espousing this sort of approach really would be an act of political courage.

      • orionATL says:

        appending to comment #16

        re existing security programs to form into a security net:

        good grief. i forgot the affordable care act.

        the affordable care act not only provides medical care for some citizens but at the same time provides some protection from severe stress on family income due to illness.

  7. orionATL says:

    and then there’s that horse that’s hard to tame and harder to ride – the economy:


    (note hidden unemployment figures)

    tight labor markets make it politically easier for cities to do what seattle and l. a. did – raise the minimum wage within their jurisdiction.

    • orionATL says:

      and that’s a damn good thing for low-wage workers.

      at least some millions in seattle and l. a. will not have to wait for 3-4 years (minimum :) ) for the moral superiority of senator sander’s $15/hr minimum wage to show up in their paychecks.

  8. lefty665 says:

    Pluralism my ass. It is really just another way of dressing up unprincipled ambition, “lesser evil”, one half step to the left of the right most dingbats, don’t leave the progressives or, god forbid, New Deal Dems any place to go.
    Chait’s misrepresentation of Sanders beliefs as rampant statism beg the question and decide the argument before it is engaged. You have done a very nice post EW, but I believe have brushed off the bigger issue. Sometimes weeds are just weeds, and in this case they illustrate how profoundly our NGOs have failed their members and the country.
    Our founders embedded mixed capitalism in our forms of government to harness the energy of capitalism and to prevent its excesses from killing us all. Our elected legislatures and administrative branches were intended as the balancing mechanisms. In recent years that balance has failed.
    Real wages for working class people have not increased since 1978, and the minimum wage has eroded badly as a floor that guarantees a living wage to all who work. Pluralism has gated new money to the top. The labor participation rate remains at record low levels. In December ’15 there were 11k actual new jobs and 281k seasonal adjustments for 292k headlines, aka cooking the books.
    In ’08 we elected a president who ran a campaign of “Change” along with veto proof majorities in Congress to enact it. What we got instead was more “Same”, pluralism at its worst. We got a stimulus that was only half big enough to regain prosperity for the country, but worked nicely for Wall St when combined with trillions of Treasury and Fed largess. In early ’09 we got deals with Pharma, hospitals and insurance companies but it took a year to kill single payer that would have helped us all. More pluralism at work, and the fatter the cat the bigger the chair at the table.
    Working people have failed to thrive from Reagan onward, and now fear a third generation will sink into poverty. That is spreading to a shrinking middle class. The elections since ’10 have been voters trying another way, with even worse results so far. That brings us to ’16 with Trump disrupting the Repubs and Sanders the Dems. More “Same” aka pluralism is a recipe for further disaster and wilder swings next time.
    Pluralism in the defense of “Same” is no virtue and “Change” in the pursuit of decent living conditions is no evil.

    • orionATL says:

      “… In ’08 we elected a president who ran a campaign of “Change” along with veto proof majorities in Congress to enact it. What we got instead was more “Same”, pluralism at its worst…”

      no, lefty, “we” did not elect president obama. you and several million other foolish suckers did that. don’t include me in your folly.

      i refused to vote for any candidate for president like obama who was so obviously unprepared by experience for the job. i wrote in clinton’s name in 2008 and john lewis’ name in 2012. i was the only person in my entire family-friendship circle, including wife, who did that.

      you didn’t learn a damn thing from your love affair with “hope and change: part I – the obama presidency”, did you, lefty.

      so now you’re all in for another fling with “hope and change: part II – the sanders candidacy”.

      you’re not going to get suckered this time, are you lefty. no siree, not you.

    • Jonf says:

      @12. Thanks for your comment. I tend to get too emotional about this shit.

      I know I am expected to kiss the ring at her coronation bc Supreme Court you know. But I am offended by the dem establishment, and I will take a long while thinking about it. It may be time for the asses to exit stage right.

  9. lefty665 says:

    orion @8 – Bullshit. Your preferred candidate is all “political posturing”, but that does not mean they all are. Tarring Sanders with your legitimate observation about Hillary to diminish him is ugly.
    One thing for sure is that we won’t get to a $15 minimum wage by asking for $12. Getting any increase will be very hard until Congress changes its stripes, but we’ve seen the folly of pluralism for the last 7 years. Preemptively giving up the high ground only entrenches more “Same”.
    Krugman had it right early in the millennium about Dems failing to stand for anything and compromising with the dingbats: “Compromise with Evil yields only the illusion of progress. Evil takes what you give it then comes back for more”.

    • bmaz says:

      And now that there is a Dem candidate standing and fighting for real things, what does Krugman do? Shits on him.

      • orionATL says:

        you didn’t learn a damn thing from your love affair with “hope and change: part I – the obama presidency”, did you, bmaz.

        so now you’re all in for another fling, this time with “hope and change: part II – the sanders candidacy”.

        you’re not going to get suckered this time, are you bmaz. no siree, not you.

      • lefty665 says:

        bmaz @14 Funny isn’t it, and I’m generally a Krugman fan. He was in the bag for Hillary in ’08, and he’s there again this time. What it meant last time was looking for the spin on everything he wrote during the campaign. Looks like that’s where we are again this time.

        • orionATL says:

          “… [Krugman] was in the bag for Hillary in ’08, and he’s there again this time…”

          and you, with your passion-filled, unanalytical comments on this race are not in the bag for sanders?

          self-awareness does not seem to be your strong suit, lefty.

    • orionATL says:

      like i said to you several years ago, lefty, you really don’t understand american politics at all;

      or, you understand it, and prefer to pretend it can be what it can, in fact, never be.

  10. lefty665 says:

    orion @18 Obama wasn’t our first choice in ’08, and Hillary was never even on the radar. But, once Obama won the nomination my wife and I were pleased to work as local and state level party officials to turn Virginia Blue for the first time since ’64 and to help elect the country’s first black president. Disappointing as he has been, we are still proud of that.
    By ’11 we’d had enough of Dems not standing for anything and being leaned on by the party to keep our traps shut. We resigned and have been happily independent ever since.
    Sanders at least stands for something. His positions have been pretty consistent over a lot of years. You don’t have to like them, but what you see is pretty much what you get. That is profoundly different from Clinton. Polls consistently show that more than half the country views her as untrustworthy and a liar. The Dem establishment is in la la land if they think she can win the election. Cruz is the main Repub with a similar profile, if those two are the nominees it could be a record low turnout. Better vote early and often orion.

    • orionATL says:

      duck, dodge, excuse.

      you made a choice. it was your choice, it was at the time evidently likely a bad choice. now you want to disown your past.

      that’s not analysis lefty.

      you can do better.

  11. wayoutwest says:

    I’m trying to figure out why anyone would think that Clinton calling for $12hr MW and Bernie calling for $15 MW shows a policy difference or that either are worthy issues to decide an election on. You will notice there is no call for raising the wages of skilled workers, blue and white collar, the people who pay for much of the services offered by unskilled workers with their purchases in the economy, their wages are stagnant or falling.

    Believing that the government can wave its magic wand and change the way business operates is ludicrous because businesses will not pay these new and huge costs out of their profits, they will be passed on to consumers or other cost saving tactics will be employed.

    There will be huge celebrations and much backslapping when and if this living wage is passed but within a short time most of these workers will find their new wage no longer has the power to buy the living they expected.

  12. lefty665 says:

    wow @23 You are right, real wages have not increased since the late ’70s. The anger, fear and desperation people have about that is expressed in candidates we have today, Trump for the Repubs and Sanders for the Dems. The swings will continue to get wider until we get politicians who are willing to demand that workers receive more of the value their work creates. All the money cannot keep flowing to the very rich.
    The minimum wage is a separate issue. It puts a floor on how little a person can be paid for their work. While real wages have not gone up, the value of the minimum wage has eroded to historic lows and badly needs to be brought back to where it was 40 years ago. No one suggests the costs come exclusively from profits. That is a straw man trotted out every time an increase in the minimum wage is discussed. Indexing the minimum wage to cost of living would ensure that it retains value.
    orion @24 Not doing any of those things. Obama did not govern as he ran, and we’re all paying the price for it now. However, he was still a better choice than Hillary, as her miserable performance as Senator with her Iraq AUMF vote and wretched record as Sec State demonstrate. There are always better choices than Hillary, except as a mate to Bill. They are perfectly matched and remind us there is still some justice in the world.

    • wayoutwest says:

      The problem isn’t how much low skill workers are paid but that too many people depend on them as a career not as a steppingstone to better and higher skill work which is no longer available. I think I read that half of the US workforce makes $15 or less so this will effect huge numbers of businesses and governments.

      Higher taxes will be required to cover the government increases and higher consumer prices will be required to pay for the private sector costs, there is no way to avoid these facts even if the evil Capitalists use them.

      To pay for these higher costs a prosperous skilled working and middle class is needed and we have neither. We are told, actually lied to, that our economy is growing while the actual unemployment rate is near 20% while business giants such as Wal-Mart are shutting stores and laying people off. Even the billions of dollars in consumer savings from the crash of oil prices has done nothing to stimulate the economy and is just a sign that the Long Recession may be permanent.

      • lefty665 says:

        WOW, Think we’re more in agreement than not. Low skills workers have a hard time acquiring skills and moving up the ladder. Mobility ain’t what it used to be. The January numbers are showing some wage pressure, but not much. What I won’t know until I get my nose in it deeper is if that’s as artificial as the jobs number. In December new jobs were shouted from the rooftops at 292,000. Turns out only 11,000 were real jobs and the other 281,000 were seasonal adjustments. This month they ‘adjusted’ the December number down by about 40,000 jobs. Guess we’re no longer in the holiday job giving season.
        Minimum wage changes don’t happen all at once. It’s not $7.25 today and tomorrow $15.00. They’re phased in over years. Everything gets a chance to adjust, and historically skilled labor has maintained a differential over unskilled. An increase in the minimum will generate some of the increase in skilled wages that concern you (and me).
        Significant portions of price increases are moderated by higher sales volumes generated by people having more money to spend. Economies of scale consistently reduce unit costs as volume goes up. There is not a 1-1 dollar increase in minimum wage and cost of living.
        You’re absolutely right on unemployment. U6 begins to count some of the people left out of the U3 number we hear, and it is more than double that happy number. I’m right there with you that 20% is a pretty good guess on actual unemployment.
        The answer on oil price relief is, I think, that we’ve had a lot of stimulus from it. Things would have been a hell of a lot worse without it. Oil prices, low growth and inflation dipping into deflation a couple of times has certainly backed the Fed off their bizarre plans for more job killing rate hikes. Monetary policy has a larger impact than minimum wage changes.
        The Long Recession will be with us until we get our heads out of the fiscal sand. The stimulus was only half big enough. It stopped the free fall but did nothing to drive growth to help us recover. We’re still there, with the lingering effects of tax cuts, sequestration and paying for stuff with cuts elsewhere.
        Japan is the model, the better part of a decade and a half of Long Recession because they have not chosen to stimulate their way out of it. We are following them right down that path and will continue until the dingbats get their heads out of their asses. We can’t cut our way into prosperity.

        • wayoutwest says:

          I think we can agree on some basic themes and the only economics I know much about from local observations. I almost swallowed the hype about increasing the MW would stimulate the larger economy in any permanent way until I wondered about the missing component in this seemingly strong argument, where will the money will come from? Businesses and local governments can’t print money like the Feds and there is little prospect of squeezing more productivity from these low skill jobs to create new wealth so the costs have to be passed on to someone, which means there will be less demand as soon as these new costs move throughout the economy.

          The PTB have known these facts for decades and that is why the program for all Western economies is, austerity for thee but not for me. They may stimulate bubbles to further their accumulation but the Working Class has already been fleeced of much of their wealth and locked into perpetual debt. This is why the huge savings from low oil prices hasn’t done anything to stimulate the economy, people may pay down some debt or hide their savings in a mattress but there isn’t much left to spend.

          Too many people still believe that a hollowed out post-industrial consumer economy can be stimulated back to prosperity with magic thinking, this is a dead end fantasy.

  13. Jonf says:

    Sorry if I missed it all. Tell me again what this asshole distinguished. Seems to me he wants a place at the table for Wall Street and big corporations. Once that is done we can all compromise and give it all away, including ever more money and power to the oligarchs. It is all bullshit. Sanders is an extension of the Occupy movement and to that end he advocates for the 99%. And he has some questions about all that money the Clinton machine is raking in from Goldman and friends. And let’s not make believe it has zero influence. So Mr Chait, go f**k yourself. The middle class needs something from this nation.

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