Monday, November 28, 2016

A Working-Class Politics Is Inherently Diverse

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the rear-guard action of elite Democratic pundits defending the primacy of "identity liberalism" with a focus on language, speech, and symbolism, at the expense of shifting to a more robust working-class politics of common interests against the wealthy and powerful, is that the American working-class is obviously very diverse.

In fact, I'm sure everyone in this conversation is well aware that non-white racial and ethnic groups are over-represented in any definition of the working class, such as among workers without college degrees or those making less than any specified level of income. So why doesn't this obvious reality lead all Democrats to embrace a return to the party's working-class roots?

That is the topic for another day, and clearly there is a lot of self-interest on the part of professional class pundits and establishment Democrats of all races and ethnicities, but the Trump election tells us that we can no longer sweep this class divide within the Left-liberal coalition under the rug. As Matt Karp's brilliant article this morning in Jacobin details quite nicely, Clinton gained dramatically on Obama's performance in all the best off upper middle class professional and wealthy enclaves of the country while falling in working-class areas, among both whites and non-whites.

For non-whites this more often meant staying home, while the disillusioned white working-class divided between those who stayed home and those who switched to Trump. To be sure some fall-off in black voting, in particular, can be attributed to a rebound effect from the unusually high turnout for Obama. But the striking divergence between professional-class black areas, which pushed to even higher levels for Clinton, and the working-class black areas, which fell off noticeably, indicates that this rebound cannot be the whole story.

There is a class politics going on that cuts across all races and ethnicities. I remember back during the primary, as a Sanders supporter, how much comment there was on his relatively worse performance in less affluent black and Latino enclaves (though he did better with all younger voters, as well as with those who were living in more integrated areas rather than in segregated enclaves, particularly among Latinos). Overall, in retrospect, it seems that the turnout was depressed in these areas overall due to massive alienation and detachment from the political process, and Sanders's message never really had enough time build momentum there, and many people misread this somehow as black and Latino enthusiasm for Clinton, which the general election proves it obviously was not.

However, what was equally striking at the time, but much less commented on, was Clinton's enormous relative success in affluent and upper professional class enclaves, such as southwestern Connecticut, Westchester County, Manhattan, the nicest Boston suburbs, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. These areas not only maintained their enthusiasm for her, but expanded upon Obama's performance quite substantially, as Karp's article details clearly. Clinton's coalition was a considerably more affluent, college educated, and comfortable group of people, compared to any Democratic voter base in my lifetime, and almost surely throughout the entire history of the Democratic party outside of the Old South.

Where can we go for here? Can the Democratic Party reclaim its working-class base, fully realizing that this is an inherently diverse and multi-cultural group of people? The good news is that the same kinds of universalist policies that can avoid the divisiveness of pitting group against each other and instead raise up all working-class people together--and, not incidentally, disproportionately this will help blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and other non-white groups, given the demographics. (Notably, however, it will not particularly help the most affluent and privileged members of these groups, many of whom are obviously speaking with quite a different voice as part of the Democratic establishment rather than in solidarity with the much larger base of their groups who are in the working class--though of course for every detestable Cory Booker, Jamelle Bouie, or Joy Reid there is a Keith Ellison, Ben Jealous, or Nina Turner, so just like among whites, there are some nationally visible figures who care deeply about class and universalist politics!)

What would a concrete politics of defending the diverse working class with universalistic politics look like? One sign of hope is the recent push by Bernie Sanders to call Donald Trump's bluff on his pledge during the campaign to pressure Carrier to keep its manufacturing jobs in Indiana rather than move them to Mexico, and to protect American workers rather than just doing the bidding of large corporations. If you've seen the viral video of workers being told of the outsourcing and impending layoffs, you will know that both non-white and white workers are there hearing the same horrible message, and reacting with outrage.

But rather than letting Trump off the hook, or allowing him to broker some shady backroom deal, Sanders has introduced legislation to make this a matter of policy through an Outsourcing Prevention Act, which would make this a general policy rather than just a political prop. This is exactly the kind of politics we need--letting the working-class of America know that we are firmly on their side, and simultaneously holding Trump's feet to the fire on an issue he is unlikely to be able to deliver on, while keeping his GOP establishment partners satisfied.

A funny thing about Trump's election: so far the only concrete policy change has been the end of the lamentably awful, anti-worker (and anti-environment) Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump himself mentioned it as the first item in his recent transition video on his priorities upon taking office. But now he has committed himself to maintaining a pro-worker trade policy (less so on the pro-environment, admittedly) and a robust defense of working-class politics in the Democratic Party will make it difficult for him to simultaneously keep his pledges and satisfy the GOP. He is backed into a corner now, and we need to cheer on people like Bernie Sanders who are making clear that we once again want to be the party that defends the (increasingly diverse) working class of America.


Anonymous said...

Apparently Alex Press at Jacobin agrees with me (great piece, well worth reading!):


Ambivalent_Maybe said...

Thanks for the link to the Jacobin article--very interesting. It jibes w/ my experience here in Denver, where we send our older kid to a very nice public school, supported by an active group of mostly white and wealthy parents. They probably voted for Clinton by large margins. Individually they are nice, and support good things like public schools. But just down the hill from that school is another elementary school, which is far more diverse, with students from many immigrant families. We have to get the wealthier people on the top of the hill to care more about the less wealthy at the bottom of the hill. There's just a tremendous myopia among the better off, even if they're better off Democrats, toward the problems of the poor and working class.