The working-class—at least the white working-class—has become the main theme of the post-election narrative in the United States. That’s not surprising since, as Jim Tankersley explained:
Whites without a college degree — men and women — made up a third of the 2016 electorate. Trump won them by 39 percentage points, according to exit polls, far surpassing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 25 percent margin. They were the foundation of his victories across the Rust Belt, including a blowout win in Ohio and stunning upsets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The last time around, these voters comprised more than one-third of the Americans who voted for Barack Obama—and Hilly Clinton failed to duplicate that success, especially in any state that mattered in the final electoral-college tally.
Clinton’s supporters want to blame their campaign debacle on racism (in addition to sexism and nativism) and, in recent days, have expressed their fear that responding to Trump’s victory by reaching out to the white working-class will lead to people of color being marginalized. It seems they’re returning to and rehashing the old, tired debate of class versus identity politics.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Bernie Sanders managed, however maladroitly, to put together a message of economic populism that challenged mainstream Democratic identity politics. He reiterated that view after the election:
Let’s rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of well-paying jobs. Let’s raise the minimum wage to a living wage, help students afford to go to college, provide paid family and medical leave and expand Social Security. Let’s reform an economic system that enables billionaires like Mr. Trump not to pay a nickel in federal income taxes. And most important, let’s end the ability of wealthy campaign contributors to buy elections.
In the coming days, I will also provide a series of reforms to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor. We must open the doors of the party to welcome in the idealism and energy of young people and all Americans who are fighting for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.
Second, as Ben Casselman has pointed out, it’s far from clear Donald Trump will be able to keep his promises to the white working-class.
Trump, if he sticks to his campaign pledges (a big “if”), will probably do little either to help the working class or to hurt the elites, at least economically. What’s more, this simple dichotomy completely leaves out the people who stand to lose the most, based on what little we know about Trump’s plans: poor and low-income families in urban and suburban areas.
Third, and perhaps most important, there’s no necessary contradiction between identity and class politics. The Democratic establishment and American liberals presume such a contradiction is hardwired into the U.S. polity and electoral politics. But, in order to move forward, we need some fresh thinking about the possibility of a real working-class politics.
We need to keep in mind that, historically, political movements around identity were also informed by and infused with working-class politics. Consider, for example, International Women’s Day, which was originally called International Working Women’s Day—the earliest observance of which was held in 1909, organized by the Socialist Party of America, in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Or the Civil Rights Movement, which in 1963 organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history. One of the March’s key demands was “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” In both cases, movements for new identity-related rights were based on working-class organizations and class-defined forms of grievance and redress.
We also need to understand, as Chris Dillow has pointed out, “the very notion of a ‘white’ working class plays the ruling class’s game of divide and rule.”
This isn’t just because it pits class politics against identity politics, but also because it imputes a racism to workers which is perhaps just as prevalent – and more damaging – among the boss class. It downgrades the many other genuine problems workers have, such as stagnant wages, insecurity and workplace tyranny. And it has the absurd implication that ethnic minorities aren’t part of the working class too.
The flip side is that the interests of the working-class are—or at least can be, with the appropriate discourses, identities, and forms of political organization—the interests of most people. As I argued in Sydney, the working-class can “challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to abolish the wages system itself.”
As Dillow succinctly put it,
the working class is not a problem in politics. It’s the solution.