John Edwards, the net and the renewal of a democratic Left in America

Today, former Senator John Edwards announced his candidacy for the Presidency in the 2008 elections. And, you may be asking yourself, why would this even remotely concern me?
After all, practically everything on this website is about two subjects – the labour movement and the Internet, and where they intersect.
So that’s what I want to talk about – how the Edwards campaign may turn out to be one of the great experiments, answering two questions which have preoccupied me for several years:
1) Can the Internet play a real role in promoting social change?
2) Does the trade union movement have a future?

Let’s start with how Edwards is using the net.
He has already been described by journalists as being the Presidential candidate who has made the most serious commitment to using the net. A quick glance at his website shows why. The site includes everything that could be on every activists’ list of what a great campaigning website needs. Every buzzword of what’s being called “Web 2.0” has been checked off, including YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, community sites MySpace and Facebook, a Flickr photo gallery, dozens of RSS news feeds, etc.
I wish unions would make half the investment into a great website as Edwards has done.
And the site is truly interactive. It allows supporters to post not only comments on what Edwards is saying, but their own blog entries. I tested it a few months ago, back when it was the pre-campaign “One America Committee” and posted an announcement about LabourStart’s campaign in support of Miami janitors then on hunger strike. (Edwards had put in an appearance on their picket line.) The entry appeared, and we were able to build some more support for the campaign.
One criticism of the site might be that it’s too packed with stuff, that someone really did have a checklist of buzzwords and included them all, but I won’t go into that here.
The point is that Edwards is trying to use everything that’s available, testing to see what works, and that is exactly what unions should be doing as well.
Second, I said that a running thread in everything I have written for some years now is the question of whether the trade union movement has a future or not. You might be asking yourself what this has to do with the Edwards campaign. The answer is: plenty.
Edwards did not come out of the trade union movement; he made his millions (and they were millions) as a lawyer. He may have had working-class roots, but they appear to be behind him now. And yet in recent years, especially since his defeat in the 2004 elections (when he first ran for the Democratic nomination, and then as John Kerry’s vice presidential candidate), he has made a sharp turn toward the unions.
This has been in evidence for some time now, and a quick glance at his activities over the last year or so show that he’s been in the thick of the fight against poverty, and helped get several states to enact higher minimum wages than the stingy Republican administration in Washington.
This is great stuff, and combined with his constant appearances at union events and expressions of support for union causes, he did two things this week that cement the bond between John Edwards and the trade union movement.
First, in his two-minute online video, placed on YouTube (where else?), standing in front of a ruined New Orleans house, he spoke about all the great work that’s been done – this was at the very end – to organize workers into unions. It was a brief reference, but it was a clear mention of Edwards’ strong belief in the positive role of trade unions.
And it gets better. Today, the campaign named its manager, the man who is leading the effort to get Edwards into the White House. That man is David Bonior, a name I’ve certainly come across as he’s also the Chair of a group called American Rights at Work — an organization that’s been around since 2003 promoting its vision of the US as “a nation where the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers is guaranteed and promoted.”
If this stuff sounds mild to Europeans and others, it sounds positively radical to Americans. The percentage of American workers organized into unions has been plummeting for decades, and is below 10% in the private sector.
Studies have shown that a majority of workers in the US would join unions if they could, but they don’t because of a well-grounded fear that they could lose their jobs if they do.
Every day, people get sacked by their employers for trying to join unions. There has long been a corporate reign of terror in the workplace and ever since I’ve been politically active (this goes back some time) unions have called for changes to the country’s laws to make it easier to join unions.
So now we have a presidential campaign boosting a candidate who is the most pro-labour politician in America today, run by a labour studies professor (I’m not making this up) who until yesterday was running a workers’ rights organization. This is the kind of politics we haven’t seen in America for more than a generation.
It bears comparison to the nearly successful 1934 California gubernatorial campaign by Upton Sinclair, a socialist running as a Democrat, under the slogan “End Poverty in California”. It reminds one of the campaigns of the Socialist Party in its heyday, when Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas could get close to a million votes.
And on a personal level, I’m reminded of a Presidential campaign that was discussed, and then abandoned, by Michael Harrington back in 1978-9. Harrington proposed then to launch is campaign from the ruins of the South Bronx – something echoed by Edwards’ decision today to launch his own campaign from still-devastated New Orleans.
None of this means that Edwards is a socialist – far from it. But I mention this to point out that there is a radical tradition in American politics, closely linked to the unions (Debs, of course, was a great railway union leader before becoming a politician). Edwards may well fit into this tradition.
The problem with that tradition is that it never came close to winning the Presidency. That may be about to change.
Today, polls in the state of Iowa, the first battleground state in the long series of Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, show Edwards in the lead – ahead of Hillary Clinton and all the others.
Edwards is running on an explicitly pro-union message, unashamed of his connections to the labour movement in his country. And he’s doing so with the kind of website that every union and campaigning organization should aspire to have.
That’s why his campaign interests me so much, and why I intend to do what I can to learn about it, report on it, and participate in it.

2 Comments on "John Edwards, the net and the renewal of a democratic Left in America"

  1. Lotta good stufff there on the Edwards site, especially on the tech side.
    But the fact remains that in a party like the US Democrats, you talk about ‘turns’ towards unions for a reason: it’s a party on which the labour movement (and other progressive forces) exert some influence, but no effective control.
    It can, has, and will, ‘turn’ back in the other direction for resons over which the US labour movement has had, has, and will have little control.
    In the US Democratic Party, party politics look a lot like coalition politics. And in that coalition, labour is a very minor player. Influential perhaps, but not massively so. Playing from a position of weakness.
    Playing at all because of an unwarranted belief that winning is all that matters.
    At least that how it looks from out here…

  2. A very perceptive post. I think and hope you’re right about the potential of the Edwards campaign.
    Before heading up American Rights at Work, Bonior was a 13-term Congressman from Michigan, including a stint as House Democratic Whip from 1991-2002. He’s a major player.

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