Left-Wing Staffers Bias Democrats Leftward. Hill Staff Unions Would Make This Worse.
Democrats need to listen to voters more and staff less, but staff doesn't feel that way
I hope you had a good weekend. We will have another edition of the Mayonnaise Clinic coming up for you tomorrow, so if you have questions for me, please drop them in the jar.
Now, let’s talk about the problem of who staffs the Democratic Party.
As Matt Yglesias wrote about yesterday, Democrats have a degree divide problem: Most of the party’s voters don’t have college degrees, but almost all the decisions about what the party should do are made by people with college degrees, and those people are systematically to the left of the party as a whole (not to mention the electorate as a whole) on both economic and social issues.
Democratic Party donors also sit to the left of the party’s voters. Corporate interests are a force that pushes the party toward the center on economics,but not on social issues.
As a result, Democratic politicians face too much pressure to take stances that are broadly unpopular; and sometimes those politicians and their staff lack awareness about the extent to which those stances are unpopular, because they are constantly surrounded by weird people who like unpopular things.
Financial considerations and intra-elite politics push Democrats to the left. And the social peers of Democratic staffers — their friends from school and their siblings and the acquaintances of their spouses who they met at a party once — are an unrepresentative, further-left sample relative to the non-college majority of Democratic voters. If you’re aware of those dynamics, you can make good decisions and navigate them constructively. But if you’re not, you won’t.
This is right, but I want to flag a way in which the problem is worse than Matt describes.
When Democratic politicians are swayed by the unrepresentative interests and values of staff, that isn’t simply a cognitive error. It’s a principal-agent problem: Political staffers have preferences, and as humans, they are inclined to use the influence they have to get elected officials to act in accordance with those preferences. Like activists or corporations or donors or voters, staffers are stakeholders with interests, and they will inevitably look for ways to use their power to get the party to serve those interests.
So if you want to address the issue Matt describes, you will have to make the staff less influential over the political direction of the party. You need less worker power. And that is a very awkward thing to say in Democratic politics right now.
That brings me to the ongoing effort by Democratic congressional staff to gain the right to unionize, an effort supported by over 100 Democratic members of Congress.
In many cases, especially in the private sector, the normative implication of the fact that unions empower workers is unambiguous: When Starbucks workers unionize, that empowers workers to demand better conditions on matters like scheduling and to take home more of Starbucks’ revenues as wages, which is good.
But in the public sector, in non-profits, and even in for-profit organizations with a political mission, unionization is about more than the allocation of power between labor and capital. The public is a stakeholder in this negotiation too, and when staffers gain more influence over what the institutions that are supposed to advance the interests of the Democratic Party coalition, the public loses influence.
So what would congressional office unions seek to do? They’d surely seek to raise salaries, which is fair enough since salaries are too low, but bargaining units in individual offices aren't likely to achieve much here since offices’ overall budgets are set by statute.Staff would likely use the unions to levy complaints about working conditions — we’ve seen a lot of these in the press over the last few years, some valid and some whiny, as when ex-staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal complained to BuzzFeed that their boss made them work hard and didn’t like mistakes.
But see also this February 4 tweet (since deleted) from Saul Levin, a policy adviser in the office of Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, about why it’s important for congressional staff to be allowed to unionize:
Levin gives away the game a bit here: One thing congressional staff unions could do is act as a collective voice for staffers on policy output, with the end goal of bringing each office’s output more in line with staffers’ priorities. That is, these unions would seek to push the party’s output to the left, exacerbating the problem Matt describes.
You’re seeing this already on the campaign side: As Politico reported earlier this month, unionized staff at Authentic, a digital consulting firm, have pressed for the company to drop Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as a client due to workers’ dissatisfaction with her political stances. In the most absurd case, there was the effort by New York mayoral candidate Dianne Morales’ campaign staffers to force a complete reorientation of the campaign’s spending priorities away from traditional political activities toward things like grocery giveaways.
This trend is bad, so I hope Congress will continue to do what it’s done for the last 26 years, and bottle up the regulations that would otherwise allow congressional staff to unionize. But there is still a broader issue in campaigns and other organizations related to the party, where a fashion for “worker power” is fostering a culture of disorganization and insubordination, with rank-and-file staffers asserting a prerogative to set campaign strategy and internal organizational disputes spilling out into the open.
As a result, Democratic politicians and their senior staff must constantly make strategic decisions with an eye toward what might lead to an embarrassing labor story in Politico. Even where there isn’t a union, this culture makes it harder for Democratic officeholders to do what Matt urges: Ignore their staff when they try to push the party in an unpopular direction.
Republican organizations do not face this particular difficulty; Republican members are not terrified of their staffs, and there is no endless parade of stories with Republican staffers venting their grievances with their bosses in the newspaper. (Republican staffers also aren’t more extreme than their party’s voters on issues on average.)
Democrats should consider whether a desire to project ideological consistency about labor issues, or to go-along-to-get-along with staff, is creating pressure for the party to make exactly the political mistakes Matt describes. Certainly they shouldn’t adopt regulations that would make the problem worse.
Even worse, often the center-ward push from corporate interests on economic policy is an unpopular one, as when centrist Democrats oppose popular progressive policies like prescription drug price controls or raising the corporate income tax rate.
Congressional staff would unionize office-by-office, so there would be no overall union for the entire staff of Congress. Republican offices likely wouldn’t unionize at all.
“Expectations in the office were high and often interfered with their personal lives,” Buzzfeed reported in an exposé that ran thousands of words.
I agree with this, but also want to offer that this trend you’ve observed is also arguably a trend of poor staffing in general. I have served one governor as an appointee and work closely with the staff of another. A good staffer serves the principal, who was in turn elected to serve the community; staff are not there to take the wheel and drive the policy bus. If I were an elected and my staffer tweeted something like Saul Levin did, I’d want to have a serious conversation with them about whether they want to staff a policymaker or be an activist — you can’t do both well at the same time unless that’s agreed upon in advance.
I’ve also observed staffers who aren’t trying to grab the policy reins inadvertently contribute to problem you and Matt Y have described by trying to be responsive to the loudest voices within constituent activist communities. It takes a confident elected policymaker to push back when internal communications staff are relaying what they hear from the loudest complainers and most forceful advocates, and I’ve seen a lot of inexperienced staffers do a bad job at protecting their principal from these forces.
I wonder if the problem lies in the failure to make these sorts of staff positions credible careers in themselves rather than career-making stepping stones (whether as a prelude to selling out and become a lobbyist or to working in activism or running for something). I suspect it’s a combination of poor compensation and the electeds themselves having the wrong priorities when hiring.
Staffers who want to be policymakers should run for office. In the meantime, they need to realize they're not the show.