1st Edition

A Democracy That Works How Working-Class Power Defines Liberal Democracy in the United States

By Stephen Amberg Copyright 2023

    A Democracy That Works argues that rather than corporate donations, Republican gerrymandering and media manipulation, the conservative ascendancy reflects the reconstruction of the rules that govern work that has disempowered workers.

    Using six historical case studies from the emergence of the New Deal, and its later overtaking by the conservative neoliberal agenda, to today's intersectional social justice movements, Stephen Amberg deploys situated institutional analysis to show how real actors created the rules that empowered liberal democracy for 50 years and then how Democrats and Republicans undermined democracy by changing those rules, thereby organizing working-class people out of American politics. He draws on multidisciplinary studies to argue that when employees are organized to participate at work, they are also organized to participate in politics to press for accountable government. In doing so, the book opens up analytical space to understand the unprecedented threat to liberal democracy in the U.S.

    A Democracy That Works is a fresh account of the crisis of democracy that illuminates how historical choices about the role of workers in the polity shaped America's liberal democracy during the 20th century. It will appeal to scholars of American politics and American political development, labor and social movements, democracy and comparative politics.

    1. Introduction: America’s Puzzling Semi-Democracy

    2. Rules for Representation and Participation at Work: How New York’s Multi-Party Politics Created Collaborative Workplaces and Influenced the New Deal

    3. Extending the New Deal to the South: The Struggle for Liberal Democracy in Texas

    4. How Having It Both Ways with Labor Rights During the New Deal Era Undermined U.S. Support for a Just Global Economy

    5. Liberals Labors Lost: How the Democrats Lost Control of Their Narrative of Liberal Democracy

    6. Reconfiguring Work and Politics in the Automobile Industry during the Obama Administration

    7. Beyond Liberal Oligarchy: The New Working-Class and Democratic Politics


    Stephen Amberg is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He was a Fulbright Distinguished Professor of American Studies at the Copenhagen Business School (2009–10) and a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the New School for Social Research (2004–05). His Ph.D. is from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1987). Amberg studies American political development, comparative political economy of the advanced countries, labor and employment policy and political movements. He has authored a book on governing the automobile industry and published articles in such journals as Studies in American Political Development, Social Science History, Polity and the Socio-Economic Review.

    "There has been a resurgence of interest in American workplace organizing among political scientists, including interest in how the declining rates of unionization that began in the 1970s impacted party organization and political behavior. Amberg’s work adds a significant contribution to that newly emerging trend. The book’s presentation of a grounded historical argument rooted in deep knowledge of historical processes of policy change supports a highly original argument about the impact of changes in the nature of work and worker control, one that opens up new vistas of inquiry for scholars interested in understanding class politics in an era of nearly unprecedented fragility in American constitutional democracy.  His highly original and provocative approach deserves to have significant impact on how scholars approach the study of American political economy, and in particular the problem of political and economic inequality."

    George I. Lovell, Professor of Political Science, University of Washington

    "The book provides Professor Amberg’s take on a major question that many leading political scientists and historians have tackled in recent years: what went wrong in American politics to undermine and ultimately threaten the longstanding commitment to liberal democracy finally achieved in the mid-twentieth century? Skillfully weaving together an analysis of institutional development and movements, Professor Amberg answers this question with a series of case studies that explain the decoupling of labor and democracy.  While the book paints a grim picture of contemporary politics, Professor Amberg holds forth some hopeful models for transformation, looking to both the past and the future. He sees the present moment as an important inflection point where a new politics of work could supplant the failing order with a more just and inclusive political vision that relinks labor, justice, and politics by defining democracy in terms of individual and collective self-determination.  While other scholars have criticized the Democratic Party’s abandonment of class and labor politics, Professor Amberg’s book will contribute powerfully to the conversation by presenting a deeply historicized analysis that illustrates how, when, and why the decoupling of labor from democratic mobilization reshaped American partisan divisions and curtailed the scope of political mobilization and political possibilities on the left."

    Julie Novkov, Interim Dean, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, State University of New York at Albany

    "The book is an ambitious analysis of a century of U.S. politics that ultimately aims to make sense of the country’s current democratic malaise. There has been a proliferation of work by scholars and pundits in recent years seeking to make sense of democratic decline in the U.S. Where Amberg’s book stands out is in how the lengthy historical scope helps him identify the deeper roots of the country’s present-day difficulties, and in how he puts workplace politics at the center of the analysis. The book makes a strong case for the argument that democratic health rises and falls on the empowerment and treatment of people at work."

    Kimberly J. Morgan, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, The George Washington University 

    "The book is an excellent account of the shifting possibilities for deep democracy in the United States over the past century. Through linked case studies presented in chronological order, Amberg demonstrates the limits of the New Deal order and provides an account of its eventual unravelling. I found the book especially illuminating in connecting the failure to establish workplace democracy with white working class support for Trump. The book is also timely, putting the recent rise in support for unions and social justice organizing in a broader historical perspective."

    Margaret Weir, Wilson Professor of Public and International Affairs and Political Science, Brown University