Commentary

Captive Democrats

Liberalism, along with its Democratic Party practitioners, has long been divided into two basic factions. On one side are humane liberals who, while often pushing ineffective or counterproductive policies, nevertheless remain genuinely concerned about the poor, civil liberties and other standard liberal goals. The other faction is interest group liberals, primarily devoted to the enrichment of any lobby that helps form a winning political coalition.

Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he seemed to embody the first form of liberalism. He was, he said, a New Democrats committed to voiding the bureaucratic mistakes of the past. He sounded almost conservative on some issues.

But the president was no sooner inaugurated than be embarked on a traditional, interest group, liberal course. He paid off the gay and pro abortion lobbies for their support, proposed the usual liberal pork barrel spending projects to “stimulate” the economy, and offered a monstrously bureaucratic, expensive and oppressive scheme to “reform” health care. His administration practiced Interest group liberalism at its worst, leavened only by hypocrisy and an unending search for higher poll ratings.

After the 1994 election, Clinton announced yet another conversion to humane liberalism. He decided that government was too big, welfare was hurting those it was intended to benefit, and the middle class deserved relief. Alas, Clinton’s ever tightening embrace of the usual liberal interest groups, and especially organized labor, contradicts his alleged repudiation of interest group liberalism.

About 28 percent of the delegates and alternates to the Democratic convention were members of the AFL-CIO or the National Education Association. This is unrepresentative of the population of the whole—only about 15 percent of the work force belongs to unions. Nor is it representative of union members themselves, many of whom have been forced to join unions against their will to hold a job. While the labor leadership is almost unanimously Democratic, 40 percent of union voters supported the GOP in 1994.

But political coercion is an essential tenet of interest group liberalism. Indeed, Democrats could not survive without organized labor’s money and manpower. Unions spent upward of $95 million through their political action committees alone in 1992 to elect left-leaning candidates. Rutgers Professor Leo Troy figures the value of labor’s in-kind expenditures was as much as five times that.

This year the AFL-CIO is going even further, openly undertaking a special $35 million campaign, financed by members’ dues, to defeat Republican congressional candidates. Some 62 percent of union members oppose the AFLCIO advertising blitz (which largely consists of distorting the records of GOP freshmen), but they have little recourse. Although the law allows them to demand a refund for any dues used for nonrepresentational purposes—and 59 percent say that they would like to have that money back—very few union members know their legal rights. Indeed, eight out of 10 were ignorant of the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled that they could not be forced against their will to finance their union bosses’ political whims.

Not surprisingly, unions won’t tell their workers that they have the right to get their money back. Neither will the administration— it believes in equal opportunity jackboots, so to speak, and is willing to victimize union members just like everyone else. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) won’t inform union members that their leaders can’t take their money for political purposes. And firms that attempt to do so risk being cited by the NLRB, which is supposed to protect workers’ rights.

All this comes from an administration supposedly committed to “choice,” “fairness” and workers. But the president has consistently shown where he stands—with organized interest groups.

Not that this is the first time the administration has chosen big labor over average citizens. American education is in crisis. Schools don’t teach; urban schools can’t even keep students and teachers safe. Yet spending, adjusted for inflation, has been increasing 40 percent a decade since World War II The only answer is to provide parents, especially those who are poor, with the opportunity to attend private schools instead of the public educational monopoly.

However, the teachers’ unions reject any policy other than giving their members more money, and the administration has therefore opposed even the slightest form of educational choice. When forced to choose between society—including its most vulnerable members, children—and the educational establishment, Clinton has unhesitatingly chosen the latter. Interest groups before all else.

Labor Day was the traditional start of the general election campaign. It was also the kick-off for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation’s campaign to alert American workers about their right not to be forced by their union to contribute to candidates not of their choice. It’s an effort that real liberals, in contrast to the faux variety now occupying the, White House, should support.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He served as a special assistant to President Reagan.