Conservatism’s Progressive Marinade


I work in organized labor, and back in April–during the budget showdown–I was showing a union construction worker how hastags work on Twitter. “Click on the thing with the hashmark next to it,” I explained, “and you can see what everybody else said about that thing.”

He clicked on #Boehner, and started reading through Tweets. Then he put his iPad down. “I don’t like Twitter,” he said. “Too many Republicans.”

“Well, actually,” I rejoined, “I know a ton of Progressives–”

“You know what I say?” he said. “Let ‘em cut Social Security and Medicare. Because you know what’ll happen then?”


Then we’ll have the revolution.”


He’s onto something, that guy.

The original Gilded Age fostered a proto-Progressivism, and then straight-up Progressivism. But I’m going to talk about the proto, because that’s more interesting to me. After the U.S. Civil War, Southern politics went through a lot of wild shifts. There was the Radical Republican period, which saw biracial governance and political participation. Then there were the Redeemer governments, wherein white power reasserted itself. But there was this other movement: the Readjusters. As the U.S. suffered the Long Depression of the late 19th century, biracial governance made a comeback in the South, and there was a brief flare-up of what we would consider Progressive Left policies. Stephen Hahn explains, in A Nation Under Our Feet:

The Readjuster movement became the most spectacular and successful example of challenges to Democratic party rule that erupted, in one form or another, in every southern state during the late 1870s and 1880s. At times the projects of disgruntled Democratic office seekers, but more commonly the products of disenchantment with Democratic policies that favored wealthy elites in town and country alike, they reflected social disruptions in evidence throughout the industrializing nation and gave lie to the Redemption-era celebrations of white solidarity. Almost everywhere, these challenges of Independents, third parties, and revitalized Republicans exposed deep divisions among white southerners that had been exacerbated rather than repaired by the defeat of Radical Reconstruction: divisions that set whites in non-plantation districts against those in the plantation belt, and yeoman farmers in the nonplantation districts against big landowners and merchants who lived among them. Almost everywhere, too, the challenges offered precious political breathing space to African Americans because they depended on the direct appeal for black votes.


For those who had hoped that the Readjusters [in Virginia] might usher in “a new era,” might “give effect to the 100,000 colored votes in the state,” might “redeem” their campaign pledges, the next several months must have been encouraging if not astonishing. Party legislators struck quickly at the state debt, repudiating one-third of it and reducing the interest rate on the remainder, but they also moved on a number of fronts to further reward their constituents and strengthen their social base. They slashed taxes on real estate while hiking them on railroads and other corporate property. They chartered labor unions and fraternal organizations. They enacted a mechanics’ lien law. And they sought to regulate tobacco warehouses and railroad companies and to undermine the power of courthouse cliques. Most of all, with black lawmakers playing leading roles, they provided for repeal of the poll tax, abolished the whipping post, and dramatically increased funding for schools and other social services, thereby addressing the needs and concerns of their humble followers in town and country alike.

A half-century later, Gilded Age politics once again failed massively. Robert A. Caro’s description of Depression-era civilizational breakdown (in The Path to Power) is so freaky it’s almost hard for me to imagine:

As the people saw that their government was going to give them no leadership, there began to be heard throughout America the sound of hungry men on the march. In Columbus, Ohio, 7,000 men in ranks tramped toward the Statehouse to “establish a workers’ and farmers’ republic.” Four thousand men occupied the Lincoln, Nebraska Statehouse; 5,000 took over the Municipal Building in Seattle; in Chicago, thousands of unpaid teachers stormed the city’s banks. A Communist Party rally in New York’s Union Square drew an audience of 35,000.


Iowa farmers…had refused to deliver milk to Sioux City, where distributors who bought it from them for two cents were selling it for eight cents–and, to enforce the strike, blocked every road leading into the city with spiked telegraph poles and logs…. The movement had spread–soon Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Omaha were isolated; when sixty insurgents were arrested in Council Bluffs, a thousand farmers marched on the jail and released them…. In Iowa, a mob of farmers, flourishing a rope, threatened to hang a lawyer who was about to foreclose on a farm. In Kansas, the body of a lawyer who had just completed foreclosure proceedings was found lying in a field. In Nebraska, the leaders of 200,000 debt-ridden farmers announced that if they didn’t get help from the Legislature, they would march on the Statehouse and raze it brick by brick.

The New Deal chilled that kind of revolt. Federal power was employed in response to disasters. A social safety net was put in place.

Then we’ll have the revolution.”

Well–that is what happened way back when. A few times.


I follow the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) on Twitter, because I like to know what the enemy’s thinking. The ABC is the official trade organization of anti-union–or, as they prefer to call themselves, Merit Shop–construction contractors. This week, ABC Tweeted this:

Nothin’ gets the kids going like attacks on the Davis-Bacon Act, of course. Seriously, though, a lot of contractors claim to hate it.

The Davis-Bacon Act, which dates from the Depression, basically says that on federally-funded construction projects, contractors have to pay the wage and fringe benefits (i.e., health insurance, retirement) paid to the majority of workers in an area–these being the “prevailing” wage and fringes. A wage survey is done in an area, and if unions do their work, their wage and fringe amounts “prevail”–so often times, the Davis-Bacon Act forces all contractors, union and non-union alike, to pay union wages and benefit payments (if there is no benefit plan, or if a worker’s weekly contribution to the benefit plan doesn’t cost as much as the prevailing fringe, the difference between a worker’s contribution and the prevailing fringe is paid to the worker in cash). If the contractor doesn’t follow the Davis-Bacon Act, that contractor will have to pay restitution to underpaid workers, or risk debarment from federal contracts.

Ahem. Still with me?

The ABC and anti-union contractors complain incessantly about Davis-Bacon. Republicans are forever trying to get rid of the thing. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in one of those examples of what Naomi Klein calls the Shock Doctrine, the Bush Administration suspended Davis-Bacon requirements in areas affected by the storm. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has tried to kill Davis-Bacon on multiple occasions.

But the thing is–and I’m not citing anything here, but I know this from experience–non-union contractors benefit from the Davis-Bacon Act. When questioned about their anti-worker practices, anti-union contractors can brag about their high wages on public building projects–this has happened before. Workers at non-union companies like to work public jobs because they know they’ll get paid more. Companies can help out their favored workers by giving them the plush public work. I bet that if you asked organizers from the Building and Construction Trades unions who really benefits from Davis-Bacon–union or non-union companies–a not-inconsiderable number of them would say “non-union.” Because Davis-Bacon forces non-union companies to pay well. Sometimes.

The ABC says it wants to get rid of Davis-Bacon, but despite consistent attacks, the thing remains. Nonunion contractors can already undercut union contractors on public jobs–but without Davis-Bacon, it could be a heck of a lot easier to show the benefits of unionism to unorganized workers.

Let’s say the ABC wins, and Davis-Bacon dies.

Then we’ll have the revolution.”


This week in Disastermania: federal power and disaster relief gets used as a bargaining chip for budget-cutting.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) threatened that disaster relief funding for those affected by Hurricane Irene would come, but only accompanied by cuts from elsewhere. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch (which I found via ThinkProgress‘s Twitter account):

Cantor drew criticism this week for his comments that the House of Representatives will require offsetting cuts to pay for disaster aid, a position he held back in May as well, after a tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo.

The money for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund in the House-passed measure has been offset by a transfer of $1 billion and a rescission of $500 million in emergency funds from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, according to Cantor’s office.

Progressivism marinates Conservatism. Would Conservatives even be in the position to do what they do–protect Plutocrats, and cut a ton of federal spending, much of which is social services–if it weren’t for federal power and social services keeping the peace in U.S. society? Bemoan it though we Progressives do, this budget cuts-for-disaster funds thing is an admission that people want and need federal power.

Cantor said, “These are disasters that there is a precedent for a federal role. I believe there’s an appropriate federal role.” Hopefully he’s telling the truth. Because if Conservatives really win, and it turns out people like Eric Cantor actually don’t believe there’s a federal role for disaster relief?

Then we’ll have the revolution.”

This entry was posted in Conservative War on [BLANK], Davis-Bacon Act, Dressed-Up Livejournal Navel Gazing, Fears of ripping off Joan Didion, Fears of ripping off Naomi Klein, Unions. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conservatism’s Progressive Marinade

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