George Floyd being killed by a police officer in Minneapolis is not simply about the death of one Black man. His death also killed an historic but uneasy alliance among the Democratic Party, labor unions, and the civil rights movement. The reaction to his death is ending the last vestiges of the historic New Deal coalition that defined progressive politics in American for at least 50 years, ushering in an era where it now appears that the Democratic Party and the civil rights community are at odds with labor and unions.
Historically, the New Deal coalition from the 1930s that defined the Democratic Party was composed of labor unions, farmers, working class, and increasing people of color. It was a coalitional party weaving together a variety of interests, primarily focused on economic and class issues. From the 1930s to 1960s it fought mostly for minimum wages, workplace safety, and collective bargaining issues. The coalition produced significant gains improving the economic lot of its members and Americans in general, helping shrink, as Thomas Piketty noted, the rich-poor gap in America. This was the Old Left–class and economic focused.
Yet a valid criticism of this progressivism was the blind eye it cast on race. Many New Deal programs such as minimum wage laws excluded southern Black sharecroppers, or unions were criticized for excluding Blacks. The Democratic Party in the South, which dominated that region from the Civil War to the 1960s, was notorious for the White Primary Supreme Court cases where the former fought hard to exclude Blacks.
Yet many labor leaders, including Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, and A. Philip Randolph, who led an AFL-CIO member union, were there in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr at the historic march on Washington, D.C. With labor’s support, the civil rights movement produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and other major legislation.
But this embracing of civil rights also fragmented the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Democrats, as President Johnson foretold when signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, would lose the South and they did. First Barry Goldwater, then George Wallace, and finally Richard Nixon exploited white racial anxieties regarding the civil rights movement the summer 1967 riots. Nixon profited from this backlash, producing what the Edsalls called a chain reaction that led to the exit of white working-class America out of the Democratic Party. Ronald Reagan continued to exploit the race card, and the adoption of civil rights, or identity politics to its critics, by the Democratic Party at the exclusion of class further contributed to the split among the Democratic Party, labor, and the civil rights community. The emergence of the New Left in the 1960s—focused on racial, gender, and LGBTQ issues—is often seen as a critical facture point.
Progressive Democratic Party politics succeeded when it held together labor unions and civil rights. In Minnesota, the birth of the modern Democratic Party came in 1944 when Hubert Humphrey among others brought the Democratic ad Farmer-Labor parties together. Together the DFL advanced, especially in Minneapolis, a progressive economic agenda but it did not put as much emphasis on race, not surprising for a state and city overwhelmingly White until recently. The DFL often gave lip service to civil rights issues, but Minnesota is a state with among the worst racial disparities in the nation for education, economics, and criminal justice. But with a rapidly diversifying population and a growing Black population, Minnesota but especially Minneapolis was changing.
Minneapolis became the picture of contemporary Democratic Party politics today. It is socially liberal, headed by a Millennial Democratic mayor and a 12-person city council, 11 of whom areDemocrats, one a Green. But the DFL of Minneapolis and Minnesota is not the party it was. Farmers have left for the Republican Party, and even before Floyd’s death in many parts of the state labor too has left. For those who are white, well-educated, and at least middle class, it is a wonderful place to live. But despite the progressive rhetoric, Minneapolis was a tale of two cities, with the one for the poor and people of color not so wonderful.
Floyd’s alleged murder by a white Minneapolis police officer turned the city into the center of the “defund the police,” with nine of its councilmembers supporting this proposal. Floyd’s death is about the hypocrisy on race in America, even with Democrats. But equally fascinating is how a Democratic Party city is going after the police union whom it blames for a history of officer shootings and use of excessive force against African-Americans. Minneapolis’ police chief announced he would no longer negotiate with the union. Minnesota’s Democratic Governor also locates much of the blame with the union. Former Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybek sees the union as an obstacle to reform, and even other labor unions, such as the AFL-CIO are calling for the current head of the police union to resign. In Minneapolis and across the country police unions are seen by members of the civil rights community as hostile to civil rights reform.
George Floyd’s death is perhaps the final fracturing of the Democratic Party, labor, and the civil rights supporters. Maybe this split needed to happen. But as it does it bodes a dramatic turn in party politics that complicates the electoral map for Democrats and progressive politics going forward. Smart politicians, such as Donald Trump, see this opportunity and will surely exploit it in the 2020 election.