The Radical Labor Policy That Every Democrat Should Run On

I know it sounds crazy, Nancy, but bear with me. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Progressive policies don’t always make for good politics. In many heavily white, sparsely populated parts of this country, it would be less than pragmatic for Democratic candidates to campaign on abolishing ICE, banning semiautomatic weapons, slashing the defense budget, revoking the tax-exempt status of churches, or a whole host of other excellent ideas. And in just about any part of America, progressive policies that require large middle-class tax increases come with genuine political risk — even when said policies are broadly popular in the abstract — as single-payer advocates in Colorado and Vermont recently discovered.

This much, stodgy pundits and centrist scolds get right. The trouble comes when they take the banal fact that moderating on some issues, in some places, is politically beneficial — and extrapolate that moderating on all issues, in (virtually) all areas, must be even more so.

In reality, there’s often nothing in moderation. The correlation between the political utility of a given idea — and where a political scientist might plot it on a left-right ideological spectrum — is looser than Donald Trump’s suit pants: Many proposals for dramatically expanding government intervention in the economy play well with “red” and “blue” Americans alike.

And if the Democratic Party had to pick a single policy — for all of its congressional candidates to run on this fall — they would be smart to pick the most downright socialist idea they’ve got.

Earlier this year, Senator Tammy Baldwin introduced a bill that would give workers control over the means of production — or, partial control, anyway. The Reward Work Act would require every large company in the United States to have one-third of its board of directors directly elected by its labor force. Which is to say: It would force companies to give their workers a say in how profits are allocated. This arrangement, widely known as “worker co-determination,” is prevalent in Western Europe and a pillar of Germany’s economic model. Both historical evidence and common sense suggest that, had workers’ representatives been in every corporate boardroom this January, the Trump tax cuts might have actually trickled down into workers’ paychecks (instead of pooling in wealthy shareholders’ bank accounts). At a time of record corporate profits, and stubbornly tepid wage growth, co-determination is a simple way of rebalancing the gains of growth in ordinary Americans’ favor — without raising taxes by a single cent.

And new polling suggests it is among the most broadly popular ideas in American politics.

For a while now, the progressive think tank Data for Progress (DFP) has been commissioning national polls on far-left ideas, and then applying state-of-the-art demographic modeling techniques (i.e., the ones used by well-funded political campaigns) to estimate the likely level of support for said policies in every state and district in the country. With the help of the data science firm Civis Analytics, DFP recently ran the concept of worker co-determination by the American public, and found that the proposal has a positive approval rating in 100 percent of the nation’s states and congressional districts.

With the public as a whole, the policy boasted net support with likely voters who are Asian-American (+40), black (+38), college-educated (+31), Latino (+32), white (+28), and not college educated (+28). No demographic group registered a net-negative opinion to the idea. And in many critical regions of the country, a majority of Trump voters endorsed it.

And, by themselves, these findings actually understate the political virtues of the proposal. Most policy polls studiously avoid giving voters partisan cues that might bias their responses. In real life, however, voters’ perceptions of any given policy are inevitably influenced by which party is proposing it. Thus, to account for this reality, DFP characterized co-determination as a Democratic idea — and included the GOP’s likely counterargument — in the wording of their question:

In many countries, employees at large companies elect representatives to their firm’s board of directors in order to advocate their interests and point of view to management. Democrats say this gives regular workers a greater say over how their companies are run and will increase wages, while Republicans claim that this makes companies less efficient and would be bad for the economy. Would you support or oppose mandating that large companies allow employees to elect representatives to their board of directors?

On first blush, one might think that this wording is biased in Team Blue’s favor. After all, the question portrays Democrats as being concerned with ordinary Americans’ wages, while painting Republicans as preoccupied with the mere abstraction of “efficiency.” Plus, it strongly implies that Republicans believe that ordinary workers lack business savvy — why else would giving them more influence over corporate governance make companies less efficient?

And yet, the question is (almost certainly) an accurate approximation of how the partisan debate would unfold. The GOP has roughly two strategies for countering liberal economic ideas that sound good to voters, in theory: (1) Claim that they would be bad for economic growth, or (2) Suggest that they’d only benefit nonwhite people. The latter isn’t really an option with co-determination. And there’s simply no way for the GOP to argue that giving workers a say in how their companies are run is bad for the economy without implying that most Americans lack the intelligence and judgment to make good business decisions — and should, therefore, defer to the wisdom of their bosses.

That is not the kind of argument Republicans want to make. As Tuesday night’s election results in deep-red Missouri made clear, when American voters are asked to take sides between management and labor, there isn’t much of contest. The GOP owes its grip on power to racial, cultural, and regional polarization. If class identity were more salient in American politics, a party as fervently committed to upward redistribution as the Republicans wouldn’t have a prayer of competing in national elections.

And there are few better ways for Democrats to increase the salience of class identity in our politics than to start a national debate over whether workers deserve a seat in corporate boardrooms. Progressivism isn’t always pragmatic politics. But calling on workers to seize (influence over their employer’s small share of) the means of productions sometimes is.

The Radical Labor Policy That Every Democrat Should Run On