Thursday, March 24, 2011

Remembering "The Day The New Deal Began"

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of an event which did much to shape the direction of American politics throughout the 20th century. On March 25, 1911, the fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claimed the lives of 146 individuals, mostly young women. Though an accident, the fire did much to jump start reforms related to workplace safety, child labor, and wages.  One can view the list of the victims, plus short snippets about them, here.

Two years ago I did a post on probably the best history of the fire, David Von Drehle’s “Triangle.” In it, I noted how Von Drehle weaves together a number of strains of our political history around the event and shows how the fire served as a lens through which we can view such stories as those of women’s suffrage, the labor movement, urbanization, immigration, and the evolution of the modern Democratic Party.

This week the New York Times has been running a number of excellent stories about the fire and its legacy. All are well worth reading to get a sense of just how important an event this was to our history. Also, there are a few films that have been made recently worth checking out. PBS’s American Experience has their film on the fire available to view here. HBO also has a documentary that will begin airing this weekend. Both have websites with additional resources. Finally, the Center for American Progress will be hosting an event tomorrow with several commentators discussing the legacy of the fire.

On the day of the fire Frances Perkins, then the head of the New York Consumers League, was in her office just blocks away across Washington Park. A witness to the day’s horrific events, she became one of the most forceful activists pushing for the reforms that ultimately came out of city and state government. A loyal supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, she became Secretary of Labor during his first term and as such was the first woman named to a Cabinet position. Thus, she and FDR were in position to further their progressive reforms and embed them in federal policy. Reflecting on the fire many years later, she called March 25, 1911 “the day the New Deal began.”

With a lot of attention being paid to labor unions in recent weeks, it’s important to have a broad historical perspective about their development and role in our society and politics. Events like the Triangle Fire show us not only how the labor movement has contributed to the creation of many policies that we today take for granted; it also reminds us that for many Americans, like the women who died that day, they offered a voice, an entrance into political life, and a path out of poverty.

**For a list of events happening in commemoration of the anniversary, see here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How Much Trouble are Democrats In If They're Losing the Most and Least White States???

Here’s an interesting finding from Lee Drutman at the Progressive Policy Institute regarding the decline in Democratic identification across the country. Testing a number of potential variables, the one with the strongest, statistically significant correlation is the percentage of the state’s population that is white. Thus, the more white a state is, the greater the decline in Democratic affiliation among its voters.

Back during the 2008 electoral season, I wrote a fair bit about Thomas Schaller’s “Whistling Past Dixie” which counseled Democratic candidates to essentially write off the possibility of winning Deep South states. Despite the fact that these states have the highest concentration of African American voters—the most solid part of the Democratic coalition—they have become the hardest states for Democrats to win. The reason, according to Schaller, is that the long history of racial polarization and antagonism in these states have produced a reaction among white voters:

The central irony of southern politics is that the nation’s most Republican region is home to half of all African Americans, the Democratic party’s most loyal voters. Unfortunately, racial antagonisms exacerbate the Democrats’ electoral problems in the South, creating a white countermobilization—a “backlash” so to speak—that fuels Republican victories. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, many of George W. Bush’s biggest wins came in southern states with the highest share of African Americans, and some Democratic congressional candidates are capturing as little as 30 percent of the white vote in the south.

Schaller’s book was written before the 2008 election and much of the analysis I did of President Obama’s victory confirmed his underlying thesis. For example, in a statistic that never fails to amaze me, John Kerry received a higher share of the white vote in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi than Barack Obama did.

Drutman doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation as to white might be driving the current trend of declining Democratic affiliation. He’s simply pointing out the correlation. It may, in fact, be a normal correction from the abnormally high gains made by Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. For example, some of these homogenous states such as New Hampshire and other parts of New England have been home to a traditional Yankee Republicanism. The current emphasis on economic and fiscal issues re-enforces that tradition.

Nonetheless, these numbers should be worrisome to Democrats going into 2012 and are worth watching as we move closer to the election.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another Time the State Capitol Was Overtaken

I’ve been writing a lot over at the Washington Examiner about the events in Wisconsin, trying to add a bit of context to what has transpired. To continue with the historical discussion, I thought I’d say a few words about another time when the state capitol in Madison was overtaken by protesters.

Late last year I came across a book that I had long hoped someone would write. "The Selma of the North" by Patrick D. Jones tells the story of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee. One of the shortcomings of a lot of the civil rights history (thankfully being rectified in recent years) is that it has focused almost all of its attention on the south. Whereas the movement in the south was directed largely on the issues of voting rights, public accommodations, and other basic constitutional protections, the focus in the north was on a wholly different set of problems. With voting rights not in dispute, the problems confronted in the north were in many ways more intractable and divisive—and in reality still with us to this day. The major conflicts were around school integration (with busing being an especially contentious component) and housing.

Jones centers his narrative around the figure of Fr. James Groppi. A charismatic priest in Milwaukee who was radicalized by his experiences in an inner city Milwaukee parish and by his participation in the protests in the south, Groppi was an immensely polarizing figure in 1960’s Milwaukee. He became a leader of Milwaukee’s NAACP Youth Core and helped channel the movement’s energies around issues of education and open housing in Milwaukee. A great on-line resource about Milwaukee’s civil rights protests can be found at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library’s website.

To appreciate the complexity and intensity of the protests around housing, one needs to wrestle with the reality of how many northern cities evolved in the early and mid part of the 20th century. As the two Great Migrations saw the African American populations of cities like Milwaukee explode (it grew 700% between 1945 and 1970) the white populations of these cities resisted the need to accommodate the newcomers in anything other than the already existing, overcrowded urban core. For perhaps the best examination of this tension, check out Beryl Satter’s "Family Properties" that explores how Chicago wrestled with housing at the same time Groppi was agitating up the interstate in Milwaukee. To this day, Milwaukee and Chicago remain two of the most segregated cities in America.

In 1969, toward the end of his work in Milwaukee and as his militancy increased, Groppi turned his attention to the issue of welfare. In response to proposed cuts in the state budget (sound familiar???) aimed at poor women and children, Groppi led a march of welfare recipients from Milwaukee to Madison. There, they took over the chambers of the State Assembly for eleven hours before they were ejected and Groppi was arrested. While the protests gained the support of many in the anti-war community in Madison, its numbers where nowhere near what we’ve seen over the past month. Nonetheless, I was reminded of the Groppi marches when watching and reading the coverage of the current protests.

As a final note, it’s important to remember that the Civil Rights movement in the north, including the Milwaukee protests, drove a wedge between what was at that point two pillars of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition—African Americans and white, urban ethnics (many of whom belonged to unions). George Wallace, for example, received 31% of the vote in Milwaukee during his quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination in 1964. He famously kick started his Wisconsin campaign at Serb Hall, the hub of the white urban ethic community on Milwaukee’s South Side. As I wrote a few weeks back in discussing the plight of “Reagan Democrats,” the issue of race was one that led many of these voters to gravitate to the Republicans. While union voters have been coming back to the Democrats—and may now be in the midst of a sprint back to the left— what remains to be seen is whether a strong bond can be forged between these two oftentimes estranged voting blocs.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A Couple of Quick Notes of Demographic Interest

Two quick things of note based on recently released Census data:

Out of California, more evidence of the surge in the Latino population.  Now, more than half of the children in Califronia are Latinos.  Among all age groups, Latinos are now virtually on par with whites.  They represent 38% and 40% of the population respectively.

The political implications of this are obvious.  As the story notes, California was one state that withstood the gains made by Republicans across all other parts of the country.  While redistricting plays a part of this as well--California has perhaps the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country--the importance of the Latino vote to Democrats will only grow.  While Latino turnout still lags considerably behind that of other groups, the sheer surge in the population is good news for Democrats, not just in California, moving forward.

The second story worth mentioning deals with a topic I've written about here before--namely the Great Migration.  Census data from Chicago shows, interestingly, that the African American population in the city actually declined between 2000 and 2010.  What seems to be happening is a larger pattern of the "Great Migration in Reverse."  Discussed in this earlier study by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, recent years have seen large numbers of African Americans migrate from northern industrial cities like Chicago to southern metropolises like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Houston.  The proportion of the African American population now living in the south is the highest it's been since 1960.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Unions and the Democratic Vote

First off, some housekeeping.  The posting here has been extremely light as of late.  The reason for this is that I've recently joined the ranks at the Washington Examiner's Opinion Zone blog.  Thus, much of what has been running through my head has been appearing over there.  I'm going to work hard to keep posting over here as well.

The big story of the past few weeks has been the debate about the role of unions, specificially public sector unions, in our political system.  As numerous states, most notably Wisconsin, try to fix budget deficits, public sector unions have been called upon to increase their contributions to health care, pension, and other benefit packages.  While Wisconsin unions have agreed to these concessions, legislation that would take away their collective bargaining rights have set off a firestorm, resulting in large scale protests and a crippled state government.

In the commentary surrounding this, the role of unions more broadly in our politics has gotten quite a bit of attention.  I've written about this here and here.  To summarize, unions have been a key component of the Democratic Party's electoral coalition even as their membership has been declining and has been becoming more public than private sector oriented.  To get a sense of this, I thought I'd run an experiment whereby I rank states according to their level of unionization and see if there is a rough correlation with their statewide vote in presidential contests.  Thanks to the good folks over at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one can get this data quite easily.

I've put together the following chart which looks at the past five presidential elections.  For each year I've ranked the 50 states plus DC according to the percentage of the population that belongs to a union--represented in the second column for each year.  I've then color coded the state for how it voted.

One thing to note is that while there is some variation as to the relative rankings of the states as to their level of unionization, by and large the state orderings remain constant.  High unionization states include New York, Hawaii, Michigan, Alaska, Washington, and California while low unionization states include the states of the deep south.  As you can clearly see, highly unionized states have tended to vote Democratic (and vice versa for low unionization states).  This obviously isn't a huge surprise but it is nice to be able to view the data this way.  Consider that in 2008, Barack Obama won 23 of the 27 most unionized states in the country.  He also, interestingly, won 2 of the 4 least unionized. 

As I was creating this chart, the Clinton elections of 1992 and 1996 jumped out as having seemingly less of a correlation between state unionization and the vote.  Clearly there was some regional appeal taking place with his wins in Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas (wins that no subsequent Democratic nominee has been able to replicate).  However, at the top of the scale, Clinton did just as well as Obama.  Thus, equating national or statewide electoral outcomes simply with union presence is a mistake.  There are a variety of other variables at play--a point made the other day by Nate Silver in an excellent post on the subject.  Especially when we have elections that verge on entering "landslide" territory, isolating one variable and assigning causality is likely to steer us in the wrong direction.

Nonetheless, it shouldn't surprise us that the proposals unleashed over the past weeks by Republican governors across the midwest--where presidential elections are ultimately decided--have set off the reaction they have.  Unions clearly see these bills not just as part of a debate about fiscal policy, but as a more fundamental attack on their role in society and politics.