Richard Hofstadter was wrong. American politics has always been about class. And this presidential election is no different.
Don’t get me wrong: American politics has always been about a lot of things (from nativism and racism to foreign entanglements and so-called cultural issues). But Hofstadter’s argument that “American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict” is just plain wrong. American politics has also always been about class and class conflict—about the class dimensions of U.S. economy and society, both quantitative and qualitative—including the “most acute varieties,” if by that we mean open and transparent, as against hidden behind other issues and themes.
Already in this campaign, we’re getting another lesson in the class dimensions of American politics.
Nate Silver, for example, dismisses the idea that Donald Trump’s candidacy is a “working-class” rebellion against Republican elites:
As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.
While Thomas Frank makes it clear that, although America is still burning seven years after the so-called recovery began, the Democratic party establishment couldn’t care less.
The party’s leadership is largely drawn from a satisfied cohort that has done quite well in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They’ve got a good thing going. Convinced that the country’s ongoing demographic shifts will bring Democratic victory for years to come, they seem to believe the party’s candidates need do nothing differently to harvest future electoral bumper crops. The seeds are already planted. All that is required is patience. . .
In reality, Donald Trump is a bigot of such pungent vileness that the victory of the Democratic candidate this fall is virtually assured. Absent some terrorist attack … or some FBI action on the Clinton email scandal … or some outrageous act of reasonableness by Trump himself, the blowhard is going to lose.
This, in turn, frees the Democratic leadership to do whatever they want, to cast themselves in any role they choose. They do not need to move to “the center” this time. They do not need to come up with some ingenious way to get Wall Street off the hook. They do not need to beat up on working people’s organizations.
That they seem to want to do all these things anyway tells us everything we need to know about who they really are: a party of the high-achieving professional class that is always looking for a way to dismiss the economic concerns of ordinary people.
We already have a pretty good sense about how class politics are going to play out in this campaign: both major-party candidates (and the establishments that line up with them) are going to pretend they’re concerned about the economic issues that worry ordinary people—and then they’ll propose policies and strategies that do nothing whatsoever to resolve those issues.
In other words, they’ll play the class card and then deal from (and for) the top of the deck.