Big Labor was once a pillar of the Democratic party. Today it’s giving way to a new liberalism, one largely concerned with consolidating the cultural changes of the last half-century.
Penny Pritzker’s name has been floated as the nominee for Commerce Secretary. Her family is fabulously wealthy and has a reputation for sharp business dealings. That’s sure to reassure business interests that worry that the Obama White House is “anti-business.” And she’s a Chicago macher and a long time, big time Obama fundraiser—a person the White House wants to reward.
One problem: The labor union Unite Here has been waging a campaign against the Pritzker Family’s Hyatt hotel chain, initiating a series of workplace safety complaints, a common strategy of harassment used by labor to punish companies that resist unionization or take too tough a stance in contract negotiations. Not long ago AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined the union’s call for a global boycott of Hyatt hotels.
Trumka’s support doesn’t surprise. The tussle between Unite Here and the Pritzker business interests is taking place at ground zero of our new economy. As the old industrial base for the labor movement declines, attention shifts to empowering workers in the service economy. Thus the focus on businesses like Hyatt, which employ low-wage workers to staff its hotels.
I doubt the White House will let Big Labor blackball Penny Pritzker. That’s because there are more powerful forces on the left. Yes, business interests might be happy, but as the New York Times put it: “As a woman, she would also help increase the diversity in his second-term cabinet after the departures of several women and minorities.”
National Hispanic Leadership Agenda chairman Hector Sanchez recently worked the diversity angle. He met with President Obama to ask for more room for Hispanics in the cabinet. The leader of the Black Congressional Caucus, Rep. Marcia Fudge, lobbied the President to appoint Black Caucus member James Clyburn as Transportation Secretary.
The White House asks for patience and understanding. Last week the President’s press secretary Jay Carney said, “This is about putting together a cabinet that will serve the president and the country well. And as part of that, the president values diversity, because he believes diversity improves excellence and enhances debate and decision-making.”
For someone like me who worked in academia for twenty years it’s a familiar way of talking. “Diversity” is one of what Richard Weaver called “god terms.” It’s a word like “inclusion” and “empowerment” that’s meant to conjure an unquestionable good that puts an end to questions and criticism. Nobody can be against diversity.
As Weaver observed, what god terms refer to remains vague. What counts as diversity? As a young faculty member I asked about the diversity requirement in the curriculum. “Would a class on St. Augustine work?” I asked, “He wasn’t a white European.” I was being disingenuous. I knew that diversity has a political meaning associated with what used to be called the new left. The word conjures the countless cultural, moral, and legal changes necessary to break down the old social consensus to make way for a new one.
To a certain degree I’m not opposed. I’m old enough to have known the old consensus firsthand. It involved racial subordination, rigid gender roles, and a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ethnic hierarchy. But it wasn’t all bad. It reinforced religious observance and a degree of sexual modesty that encouraged courtship. There was less of a sense of entitlement among people at the top of the heap, or at least a sense of entitlement tempered by noblesse oblige.
It’s not my purpose to debate the merits of the old consensus or judge the methods employed to weaken and transform it. My point is that the Democratic party is now the party of diversity, which decoded means people who are invested in cultural changes of various sorts. Some take the changes for granted and want to consolidate them against perceived threats (racism, for example, or sexism and the “glass ceiling”). Others want to bring about further changes (gay rights). The break-down-barriers mentality unites women’s empowerment to black empowerment to Hispanic empowerment to gay empowerment to an infinite array of post-national anti-colonialists, climate change activists, and all who dream of a New World Order.
More than thirty years ago Evangelical Christians woke up as a political force in America. They transformed the Republican party into a vehicle for their cultural agenda, which wasn’t to restore the old consensus (thought that’s what liberals often said to imply that they were racists) but to fight against its wholesale replacement by a new consensus that is indifferent to important moral truths.
Now it’s the Democratic party’s turn to be the party of culture warriors, which is what diversity proponents necessarily are. If our liberal elites judge that Penny Pritzker adds to diversity, I’m willing to bet that trumps the messy business of service workers at hotel. The empowerment of (rich) women means more than a few bucks in the pocket of hotel maids.
And I’m willing to bet they will, and this in spite of the fact that she was born with a very large silver spoon in her mouth, was educated at Stanford, Harvard, and then Stanford again, and serves on a number of corporate boards. The magic of diversity transforms her into a symbol of social justice.
It’s not your grandma’s liberalism anymore. Say a prayer for George Meany.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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