Build Back Better: Race and Democratic Dignity

Bonnie Honig is the Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University. She is the author of Shellshocked: Feminist Criticism After Trump; Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair (Fordham); and A Feminist Theory of Refusal (Harvard)

Progressives and liberals in the 20th century sought to reform work by democratizing the workplace. Guided by an ideal of the “dignity of work,” they thought democracy could dignify work. In the 2020 election, by contrast, work dignified democracy: election workers at all levels labored to secure a fair and free election and their work lent dignity to the democratic process.

In the early 20th century, the idea of the dignity of work was central to the Progressives. As Marc Stears notes in Demanding Democracy, American Progressives were “deeply concerned about the dramatic mismatch between their democratic ideals and the experience of everyday life in the workplace.” With many Americans subject to the “arbitrary powers” of employers, Progressives worried that absolutism at work groomed people for absolutism in politics. Forced deference to authority in one sphere teaches deference to authority in others.  

Later, in the 1970’s, Robert Dahl worried that the modern corporate worker had to follow directives of anonymous corporate directors and was “compelled to perform intrinsically unrewarding, unpleasant, and even hateful labor in order to gain money to live on.” The result, Dahl said, was to deprive the worker of the “intrinsic rewards” of work: no pride, no sense of empowerment, accomplishment, or capability (Dahl, 1970; 135, quoted in Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh, “Theorizing about Workplace Democracy,” Journal of Theoretical Politics,1990 109-126: 114-115. See also Robert Mayer, “Robert Dahl and the Right to Workplace Democracy, The Review of Politics, 2001, 221-247).

From the Progressives to Dahl, the solution was to democratize the workplace. Unions, workplace democracy, or community ownership might make work a rehearsal for democracy, not its antithesis; a place of empowerment, not indignity.

Fifty years later, however, things are not better. They are much worse. We have a precarious, flexibilized economy and, as Russ Muirhead observes, workers must now “stand ever-ready to change employers and industries, [and] the experience of work cuts against the gradual accumulation of ability, renders expertise irrelevant, and makes it hard to conceive of our careers (and perhaps our lives) as possessing any unity.” The music of our lives seems, increasingly, all staccato no legato. The enduring relationships needed to ground democratic engagement seem unlikely to be found by way of 21st century work.

And yet in the 2020 election, we saw a glimmer of possibility in a new, reversed relation between democracy and work.  Rather than democracy lending its dignity to the workplace, workers lent their dignity to democracy.

When election workers throughout the country counted the ballots, they reconnected work and democracy in ways that were both less and more than what was hoped for by the Progressives or Dahl. In Michigan, and elsewhere, election workers put in long hours after November 3rd. They counted votes and later took part in recounts. They transported ballots from polling places to counting centers. They matched signatures. Some were subjected to personal risk when misleading videos accusing them of malfeasance went into social media circulation, sometimes with their home addresses posted. Still, vote-counting workers, many of them Black, kept their focus even while politicized Republican poll-watchers loudly and aggressively challenged their every move, especially in majority minority precincts.

This was during a pandemic and some of those poll watchers were not masked, which meant that not just the health of democracy but also that of the workers was on the line. Still, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said in a prepared statement, “We will not allow ANYONE to distract us from the job at hand. Our charge is to remain calm, focused and deliberate as we continue the task at hand.” And so they did.

Now, there is no dignity in the lack of choice at work. Those election workers were not free to leave and they undoubtedly needed the pay they would have sacrificed were they to do so. But if we attribute their constancy to powerlessness, we assume they were unaware of the stakes of the moment and ignorant of the history to which it, and they, belonged. And that is not right, surely.

The Rev. Steve Bland, senior pastor of Detroit’s Liberty Baptist Church, was outside the TCF center with a group of poll chaplains, there to encourage voters and to help make sure the votes were counted. He was asked by a reporter if he knew who were the protesters trying to stop the count? He answered: “These are persons who are passionate and they are consistent. They’ve been saying all along they’re going to suggest that’s its rigged, it’s flawed or fake, they’ve been saying that before now. We just need to be persistent, to make sure our voice gets counted because as goes Detroit, will be done so. And I will say, the Black vote in Detroit is higher than it’s ever been, and we will determine the outcome because we’ve gone from picking cotton to picking presidents.”

The 2020 election illustrated how much work is involved in elections and, by extension, in democratic governance. This is work many of us often take for granted since it is the work of maintenance, the invisible daily labor that keeps things going without breakdown. Its invisibility is a sign of its success. Because American democracy, in the 2020 election season, was close to breakdown, we got to see the work that is usually hidden and we saw how essential, and hands-on, such work is. To count the vote became a newsworthy activity and the cameras recorded it. We also saw, in the weeks that followed, how pride in one’s work can harden resistance to its overthrow. Standing in the way of a powerful, if not entirely competent, effort to overturn the 2020 election was people’s pride in their work. It was almost anachronistic given what has become of work in the 21st century; a trace of another time. Perhaps it might inspire a future.

When Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was importuned by Trump to find the exact number of votes needed to flip the state to Republicans, Raffensperger refused. When some interpreted that refusal as suggesting Americans had a new voting rights hero, Stacy Abrams suggested otherwise: “Lionizing Brad Raffensperger’s a bit wrong-headed,” she said. “This man is not defending the right of voters. He’s defending an election that he ran” He was defending his work. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election forced Raffensperger, a Georgia Republican, to choose whether to defend his work or renounce it as flawed. Raffensperger chose the former, though he voted for Trump.

Similarly, Chris Krebs, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the Department of Homeland Security from November 2018 to November 2020, reassured the American public that the 2020 election had been free of fraud. He had worked hard to make it so. A former Microsoft cybersecurity executive, Krebs and his team led state and local officials, Republican and Democratic, to work together and with the federal government, to secure American election infrastructure. When Trump said the election was rigged, he insulted two years of hard work by Krebs and CISA. Krebs had to speak up and, of course, he was fired. Later he said his greatest regret was that he never got to say goodbye to his team. Working together with others in common cause creates an esprits de corps, a sense of being in it together. Even in the 21st century’s ever more degraded conditions of work, this esprit can sometimes be found.

In the weeks following the election, the many hands that worked together counting and recounting all those ballots were part of the election infrastructure, too: the other side of what Krebs’ CISA worked on. The counting and recounting are just as essential to the maintenance of democracy as cybersecurity measures. Indeed, the word maintenance, from the French word for hands, les mains, reminds us that maintaining democracy is a hands-on affair. Even now, where so much that was once solid has long since melted into air, there is work that needs doing by hand. It is infrastructural work, it is often care-work, it is manual labor.

In the aftermath of January 6th, the work that needed doing was to clean up the debris of a white riot at the Capitol, and maintenance workers of color were photographed holding the brooms and dustpans with which they would sweep away the broken glass of a day. In one image taken that day, a worker is backgrounded by paintings of great men and for once it is clear, as it should have been other days as well, it is they who are ennobled by him.

Those hands, counting the ballots and sweeping up the debris, represent the care work that Silvia Frederici says always disappears under capitalism. Our pandemic-driven societal recognition of care work as “essential” to a functioning society is a good thing. Still, care-work is treated as “low,” and it is not paid properly. Providers are often anonymized and rewarded for their labors with job insecurity and vulnerability.

In Working (1972), Studs Terkel interviews a construction worker named Mike, who suggests workers like him should not disappear; they should get to sign what they make. After all, Mike says: “Somebody built the Pyramids. Pyramids, Empire State Building – these things don’t just happen.” “There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say ‘see, that’s me over there on the 45th floor. I put the steel beam in.’ Everybody should have something to point to,” says Mike.

The idea that everyone should have something to point to, something to which they contributed, is a democratic idea. Indeed, democracy itself is something people can point to with the pride Mike takes inhis work. Those who worked the 2020 election, whether they offered someone a ride to the polls, donated to a campaign, canvassed a neighborhood, helped count the ballots, served as a dignified poll-watcher, or resisted a state’s efforts to decertify the election results, are among the many thousands of people who can point to Mike’s proverbial “45th floor” – in this case it is the 46th — and say “I put that steel beam in.” But, as Hannah Arendt notes, the world wears away even the most sturdily built objects, if we neglect them. We will have to do it all again; and again; and again. In a democracy, every week has to be infrastructure week.

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