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Craig Becker And The Pluralism Problem

If you haven't yet read John Judis's latest article about Craig Becker and President Obama's labor problem, you should do so right away. John lays out the way that Democrats reached a consensus with Republicans on staffing up the currently-paralyzed National Labor Relations Board, only to see the GOP renege under right-wing pressure. It's a great piece that says a lot about about labor, Obama, and dysfunctional government.

Let me pull out this somewhat ancillary passage:

Created in 1935, the NLRB was a cornerstone of the Second New Deal. The board was designed to protect the right of workers to form unions--by preventing companies from intimidating organizers and employees, as well as by overseeing workplace votes on unionization. In carrying out this mandate, the NLRB laid the basis for a new American pluralism in which the growing power of business could be countered by that of organized workers. The board functioned reasonably well for its first 44 years, but, toward the end of the Carter administration, with Republican conservatives on the rise, it became a political battleground.

Pluralism is a shared obsession for John and me. It's an analysis that supposes that relatively decent, broad-based policies can emerge from a political system in which organized interests represent a broad swath of the population -- unions represent workers, business represents capital, and so on. In its classic form, the pluralist model is a defense of a political process in which interest groups play a heavy role in influencing policy.

I don't think the pluralist model does a good job of describing American politics over the last couple decades -- which is to say, I think that interest groups do wield enormous influence but the public interest is not reflected in the outcome. What I do think is that the pluralist model does a good job of describing policymaking within the Democratic Party. In the Democratic Party you have a strong labor influence, but also a strong business influence to counteract it. The proportion of Democrats on the left who tend to closely reflect the labor perspective is roughly counterbalanced by Democrats on the right who align themselves with business. This kind of pluralism is reflected in policy initiatives undertaken by Obama. Health care reform, cap-and-trade, various regulatory reforms, the deficit commission -- all these things represent attempts to cobble together a rough consensus among stakeholders that advances the public interest. They're generally imperfect compromises that still clearly make the country a better place, which is to say, they're a hallmark of the sorts of reforms that characterized the pluralist postwar consensus period.

The catch, of course, is that the Democrats don't have total control of government. Republicans still have the ability to gum up the works. And Republicans represent the most ideological and narrowly self-interested portions of the business community. And that's the problem with the interest group balance in Washington over the last three decades. You have power alternating between one party that reflects a roughly balanced array of interests and another that reflects a tiny elite. The end result is, therefor, badly skewed.