Burying the White Working Class
The white working class is a zombie that doesn’t know it’s dead.
Or if it’s not fully zombified yet, its members are all too busy cleaning their AR-15s and posting racist comments on YouTube to vote for a progressive. That is, if they’re not already on the Trump bandwagon, which they probably are.
At least that’s what the Democratic Party wants you to believe.
Last Tuesday, Bernie Sanders won the 93.7 percent white state of West Virginia with ease, beating Clinton among men and women, young and old. The week prior, he cruised to victory in Indiana, despite no longer apparently being a serious contender for the nomination.
Leftists were ecstatic: a socialist winning over middle America!
Mainstream observers were less enthused. In fact, they were quick to dismiss Bernie’s victory on this very basis. They saw an old, infirm, and irrelevant group thwarting their desired coalition of what Michael Lind calls business-friendly “urban cosmopolitanism.”
This same coalition helped Clinton sail to victory in New York: the wealthy Park Avenue scions marching to (separate) ballot boxes with their brothers and sisters in arms — East New York’s poor — many of whom no doubt safely Ubered the former back to their townhouses in time for dinner.
Here in the middle of all this were the voters of West Virginia — one of the poorest and whitest states in the country, a place that repeatedly elected a former Klansman to the Senate — asserting their material interests. In the ongoing Clinton coronation, they were about as welcome as a case of black lung.
But it isn’t just the Sanders campaign zombie that liberal pundits are desperately trying to stamp out. It’s the white working class itself.
With Clinton’s nomination a lock, liberals have become even more furious and dismissive of white workers. Commenting on Sanders’s West Virginia victory, they were quick to point out that a felon running against Obama in the same state in 2012 got nearly half as many votes. They crowed about how some of both Bernie and Clinton’s voters said Trump was their real number one choice, and much was made of how Sanders overwhelmingly won voters who want “less liberal” policies than Obama’s.
Conveniently lost in the noise is the fact that Sanders won an even bigger share of voters who want “more liberal” ones.
The media takeaway was clear: somehow, someway, West Virginia’s vote for a Jewish socialist Brooklyn native was a vote for racism. “I don’t want to say it,” said Chris Matthews on election night “but West Virginian voters are, you know — conservative on social issues — but there’s another word for that. . .”
MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald claimed, “Many attributed the outcome to West Virginia voters’ discomfort with Obama’s race. The state is one of the whitest in the country.” To be fair, it’s now widely known that Hillary Clinton keeps hot sauce in her purse at all times.
These kinds of statements are the name of the game for today’s Democratic elite. The party has established a clear line on the white wage-earning class: they’re all either dying (demographically or literally), irrelevant in an increasingly nonwhite country, or so hopelessly racist they can go off themselves with a Miller High Life-prescription-painkiller cocktail for all they care. As liberal hero and Sanders nemesis Barney Frank put it a couple of weeks ago, “the likelihood that fifty-eight-year-old coal miners are going to become the solar engineers of the future is nil.”
The problem with this line is not just that it’s gross and elitist — it’s that it’s not even true. The working class is bigger than ever, is still really white, and is broadly supportive of a progressive populist agenda.
It just turns out that the Democratic Party outside of Sanders isn’t too interested in that agenda. And it’s even less interested in that specific chunk of the working class that forces liberals to confront head on the naked brutality of the economic system they cherish.
To no one’s surprise, that’s not a confrontation that brings out the best in them.
Somehow liberal pundits have gotten it into their heads that white workers — perhaps thanks to Fox News’s racist dispatches — are just an aggrieved, pissed off, outnumbered minority. But their particular disgust is just a stand-in for a more generalized anti-working-class politics. No matter how you slice it, the working class — while not quite Wes-Anderson-movie-white — is really damn white.
While the Economic Policy Institute projects that the US working class will be 49.6 percent “non-hispanic white” by 2032, 77 percent of all minimum wage (or below) workers today are white. Half are white women, who it should be noted joined young working-class women of color as an enthusiastic core of Sanders’s base. And as Tamara Draut shows in her new book Sleeping Giant — which stresses the diversity of the new working class — 63 percent of all workers without a bachelor’s degree are still non-Latino white.
Instead of acknowledging the size and importance of this part of the electorate, Democratic Party elites have simply constructed a new narrative to suit their interests — a narrative that was on display after West Virginia. Following Sanders’s win a significant chunk of the punditocracy came to the conclusion, mostly by abusing the hell out of exit polls, that a vote for the Jewish socialist was actually a vote for white supremacy.
After decades of being told white workers would never support socialism because they’re racist, we’re now told that they support the socialist candidate because they are racist. Yes, this is where liberals are in the year 2016.
How did we get here? How did we get to the point at which universalist, social-democratic politics — the antithesis of Reagan’s welfare queen and the very set of policies we’ve long been told white workers would never support out of racist spite — have become the last gasp of white supremacy? Where a working-class program — that would disproportionately help women and people of color — is the new white flight?
It’s really a tale of two economic programs and two kinds of politics: Sanders versus the Democratic Party, represented by their standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton.
The Sanders program is a recognizably working-class one: higher minimum wage, free college for all, labor unionism, and a re-regulation of finance with steep taxes on the one percent. And his actual politics go far beyond that.
He preaches the necessity and righteousness of class war, calls out our oligarchs by name and — in the case of his Immokalee farmworkers advertisement — asks us all to question “who benefits from this exploitation?” This politics puts Sanders considerably to the left of every major Western social-democratic or labor party leader, short of Jeremy Corbyn. Howard Dean and Bill Bradley he is most certainly not.
The Clinton program — which is the kind of politics that’s defined the Democratic Party and American liberalism for decades — is also a class program. But to paraphrase Adolph Reed, it’s a politics that few would recognize as a working-class one.
Despite off-the-charts wealth inequality, Democratic Party liberals have been concerned not with an egalitarian reckoning to unite the have-nots against the haves but with inclusion: bringing different “interest groups” into the professional class while managing everyone else’s expectations downward.
This kind of “inclusion” politics — the chance at climbing one of a tiny handful of rickety ladders to the top — is the only economic program the Democratic Party mainstream is selling to those not already in the upper tiers. Sure, this politics is better than nothing. But as Ralph Miliband put it, “access to positions of power by members of the subordinate classes does not change the fact of domination: it only changes its personnel.”
Standing outside of this shift, unmoved and — as the Democratic Party sees it — ungrateful, is the white working class. Not just those silver-haired remnants from the unionized, manufacturing heyday whose jobs have been offshored or, more likely, de-unionized, but the vast swath who’ve been forced to adjust to the new norm of low-wage, flexible, service-sector hell. Even with the college degree and boatload of debt needed to obtain it.
But where Clinton lowers expectations for this demographic, Bernie raises them. While a shockingly aggrieved Clinton angrily declares that health insurance as a right will “never, ever come to pass,” Bernie runs on a platform of Medicare for all.
While the essence of the Clinton Democratic Party has been to take what social-democratic parties had traditionally pursued as rights — health care, education, housing, etc. — and return them to the market, another Democratic candidate is telling the working class that it doesn’t have to be satisfied with scraps.
But even with such “dangerous” and “unrealistic” expectations why do elite liberals seem to focus so particularly on white wage-earners?
Part of the explanation is that unlike with the white working class, many of the hardships workers of color face fit neatly within an acceptable liberal narrative about what’s wrong with our society: racism. And when racism can be blamed, capitalism can be exonerated.
Liberals can delude themselves into believing that it is nothing more than the accumulation of individual prejudices stashed away in the minds of powerful white people that has destroyed black and brown communities in Detroit, Ferguson, and Chicago’s South Side.
Class stratification, capital flight, and the war against organized labor are thus sidestepped completely. The liberal elite is spared from having to question the fundamental injustices of capitalism.
Unfortunately, the miseries, hardships, and exploitation of white workers don’t fit into an easy capital-friendly framework. Liberals then have two options: blame the individual moral failings of white workers or call into question the very nature of capitalism itself.
Guess which one they choose. More and more, liberals just point and scream: “racist.” Certainly, many members of the white working class reject the Obama/Clinton program of inclusion and meritocracy for reactionary reasons (and vote Republican), many more are pretty lukewarm about it. When polled, they support far more egalitarian policies like the kind associated with the Sanders campaign. But when it comes down to it, few of them show up on election day.
And frankly, it’s hard to blame them. There’s not much in it for them. There’s no political party looking out for their interests — only ones telling them to do more with less.
We’re socialists. We don’t talk about workers all the time because they’re the most exploited or because there’s something uniquely heroic and noble about them. There isn’t.
The working class is central to a meaningful progressive politics because they have the numbers, the economic incentive and the potential power to halt capital in its tracks — to check the power of our ruling class and build a truly democratic society out of this miserable oligarchy we all find ourselves stuck in today.
It becomes clearer every year, particularly with Sanders’s popularity, that the American ruling class has made out like bandits simply by keeping portions of the large (and potentially powerful) working class from uniting in a single political party behind even a social-democratic program. And that such a scenario would be nothing short of a disaster for them.
It’s obvious that this kind of popular politics will never be built if segments of the working class — much less a majority of it — are written off. So when I hear liberal pundits saying that white workers are morally compromised beyond hope or on the way to irrelevance, I tend to get a little suspicious.
But when those same pundits claim — despite all evidence to the contrary — that most of these workers are more invested in cultivating racism than their own material and social emancipation, I think it’s time to stop listening to them altogether.
Because they’re not just wrong anymore. They’re on the wrong side.