Class Struggle and the Fight for Democracy: 8 Propositions
8 propositions on class struggle and the fight for democracy
Authoritarianism in the United States is a cross-class, overwhelmingly white movement. Trump’s supporters were not only from the white working class. Pape’s analysis, for example, shows that middle-class and upper-middle-class white people were disproportionately represented on January 6th. This is consistent with a long history of support from small business people (the petit bourgeoisie) for right-wing and fascist politics around the world. And there’s a sizable share of the 1% that has actively supported Trumpism, too—think of Peter “I am not a vampire” Thiel, the infamous “My Pillow Guy,” Mike Lindell, and the Mercer family, which has bankrolled Trump and his acolytes. Much of the corporate class, while not offering that level of outright support for authoritarianism, has passively enabled it, and they have profited from policies like the Trump tax cuts. As Judd Legum, Tesnim Zekeria, and Rebecca Crosby reported in Popular Information, back in April, 111 corporations signed a statement decrying the “360+ state bills pending in 47 states that contain discriminatory voting measures,” but this week only two of those corporations (Patagonia and Richer Poorer) affirmed support for “filibuster reform to pass voting rights legislation.” We also highly recommend Doug Henwood’s Jacobin article “Take Me to Your Leader: The Rot of the American Ruling Class”, which explains the divisions within the corporate class.
The turn towards authoritarianism has not been driven principally by manipulation by the 1%. While authoritarianism has been driven by support from whites across income groups, there is in fact substantial organic white working-class support for Trumpist politics. It’s a mistake to dismiss that support as “false consciousness.” There is a grassroots movement that is driving the Republican Party towards authoritarianism. To be sure, there is an “astroturf” dimension of this right-wing insurgency (see, for example, Julie Fancelli, the Publix heiress who helped pay for the January 6th insurrection), but it also has a genuine bottom-up quality. (Two useful takes on this are Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right and Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America).
There’s been a strange class inversion in politics in Western democracies that is crucial to understand. Research by Thomas Piketty, Amory Gethin, and Clara Martinez-Toledano has shown that over the last 50 years in 21 Western democracies, higher-educated voters have increasingly supported left-of-center parties while lower-educated voters have moved right. On the other hand, lower-income voters still generally support center-left parties, while higher-income voters are mainly voting right. Piketty and his colleagues contend that a key driver of politics has been the rise of opposing elites: a “Brahmin left” (with more education but lower incomes) and a “Merchant Right” (with less education but higher incomes). The reason why escalating inequality has not produced the level of uprising one might expect is that the salience of economic redistribution, which sorts people politically by income, has declined, and new axes of conflict (particularly around immigration and climate) have become more salient, sorting voters by education. In a Guardian article, Piketty and his colleagues argue that “As political systems have effectively come to represent two kinds of elites — the well-educated and the rich — they have left little space for the expression of the interests of the most disadvantaged citizens. . . . Class is not dead, as three political scientists emphatically stated 15 years ago: it has been buried alive.” In this longer, academic paper and in their book, they provide a fuller explanation.
There’s considerable evidence of the positive role of unions in changing the orientation of white workers to politics. Plenty of white union members are Trump supporters, but being part of a union makes it more likely that they’ll shed racist resentments and vote Democratic. As political scientists Jake Grumbach and Paul Frymer argue in “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” and as Grumbach summarized in a Twitter thread, “labor unions make white people less racist.”
Cross-sectional analyses consistently show that white union members have lower racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans. More importantly, our panel analysis suggests that gaining union membership between 2012 and 2016 reduced racial resentment among white workers. The findings highlight the important role of labor unions in mass politics, and, more broadly, the importance of organizational membership for political attitudes and behavior.
And anti-union, right-to-work laws impact not only unions but politics, as James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson argue in their paper “From the Bargaining Table to the Ballot Box: Political Effects of Right to Work Laws”:
Labor unions directly affect wages, employment, industrial structure, and inequality. But unions also influence the economy and labor market indirectly through their effects on politics, providing candidates with voters, volunteers, and contributions, and lobbying on public policy. We use the enactment of right-to-work laws––which weaken unions by removing agency shop protection––to estimate the effect of unions on politics and policy from 1980-2016. Comparing counties on either side of a state and right-to-work border to causally identify the effects of the state laws, we find that right-to-work laws reduce Democratic Presidential vote shares by 3.5 percentage points. We find similar effects in Senate, House, and Gubernatorial races, as well as on state legislative control. Turnout is also 2 percentage points lower in right-to-work counties after passage. Exploring the mechanisms, we find that right-to-work laws dampen organized labor contributions to Democrats and that potential Democratic voters are less likely to be contacted to vote. The weakening of unions also has large downstream effects: fewer working-class candidates serve in state legislatures and Congress, while state policy moves in a more conservative direction.
The decline of unions is a critical part of the story of the rise of authoritarianism. An important new piece in Boston Review, “The Deep Structure of Democratic Crisis” by Ruth Berins Collier and Jake Grumbach, argues persuasively that the crisis we face goes way beyond Trump or even the institutional anti-democratic features of US politics.
We argue, in particular, that the economic transition from industrialism to post-industrialism may be less conducive to democracy, or at least provides an explanation for some important threats to democracy that we are witnessing today. Such a lens puts the analysis of the U.S. crisis in comparative perspective, allowing us to see some common threats across rich, historic democracies as well as the specific features that account for the extreme form it takes in our country. . .
Specifically, it is important to recognize how a country’s economic model can organize and disorganize political groups, empowering and disempowering them and shaping the coalitions they form. Industrialism, we argue, was fertile ground for the construction of a pro-democracy coalition, one supported by labor unions; post-industrialism, or at least the transition to post-industrialism, has fragmented such a coalition. The current problem is how to organize a pro-democracy coalition in the face of the Republican assault.
We point, in particular, to two salient structural features of post-industrial political economy that constitute a challenge to democracy. First, to use a term of art from political science, the structure of mass politics shifted from a single dominant “cleavage”—a conflict between owners and workers organized by labor unions—to a pattern in which politics is organized around many different competing cleavages. Second, there was a shift in the balance of power between capital and the state, which reduced the capacity of the government to respond to social and economic upheaval. Both of these developments present a challenge to democracy, and technology has only accelerated each….
Our contention is that unions were critical in sustaining mass democracy by virtue of their role in organizing, mobilizing, and sustaining a politics that embraced a broad pro-democratic coalition, which they were able to do on the basis of materialist demands that went beyond the specific interests of their own membership. With the decline of unions and of an industrial workforce on which they were based in the second half of the twentieth century, no alternative organization has been able to articulate a unifying coalition with similar force. …
Alongside these developments, there was a rise of competing “post-material” interests around important issues of rights and risks — such as race, gender, and sexuality rights and nuclear and environmental risks. These and other late twentieth-century social movements achieved momentously important gains, especially for the rights of people of color, women, and sexual minorities. But as labor power declined over this same period, expanded legal rights did not translate into very significant gains in material equality for marginalized identity groups. After declining precipitously since the late nineteenth century, for instance, the Black-white wealth gap in the United States remains above its level in the 1970s. To produce material equality, rights-based movements seem to require a strong labor power component. . . .
The declining dominance of the materialist dimension in the organizational structure of interest articulation, combined with a set of economic crises that began in the 1970s, made room for a politics of the “passions” rather than of the “interests.” Our argument is not a simple story of backlash to immigration and civil rights movements, but of the dismantling of organized labor’s ability to articulate and focus a predominate issue created an opening for a resentment-based mass politics. Societies became more vulnerable to mobilization of the passions of xenophobia and racism, particularly in the face of greater immigration. This is not to say that xenophobic and racist sentiments were not present or widespread in the past; they certainly were. Rather, the structure of popular and partisan politics became organized around these sentiments in newly influential ways. In Europe, primarily new parties emerged around these passions, but not in the two-party United States.
This organizational transformation of popular interests is intertwined with another profound shift: the growth of the power of capital relative to the state. This balance of power has shifted dramatically over the past half-century, and with it, electoral regimes have less capacity to respond to democratic preferences. If, indeed, capital was once thought to countervail the power of the state in a way that would underwrite democracy by securing an autonomous field of societal action and thereby preventing tyranny, capital now threatens to capture and overpower the preferences of the democratic majority, while securing its own autonomy from the state. This is not to say that firms or large owners of capital are ideologically unified or do not often find themselves on opposite sides of policy battles, but that their economic and political power have grown. . . .
The challenge is to build an organizational basis for a mass pro-democracy coalition across many fragmented interests—a coalition that understands that democratic institutions are its best chance to achieve the good life, advancing equality in terms of both economic and racial outcomes. There is as of yet no clear path to this outcome, but the first step is to recognize it.
These structural shifts in the economy have had deep cultural and psychological impacts, creating an opening for authoritarian appeals. Sociologist Michèle Lamont argues that the neoliberal revolution, which lowered wages and degraded work, created a psychic shock for workers. Among other things, the ascendant neoliberal ideology created new “scripts of the self” and criteria of worth — becoming rich, competitiveness, and self-reliance came to be valued above everything else in dominant mass culture. As Lamont writes,
. . . blue-collar workers feel stigmatized as a result of their downward mobility. Their instability is associated with the recent opioid epidemic and the decline in life expectancy among non-college-educated whites in the United States (Case and Deaton 2015). In the U.S. context where worth is above all defined as socioeconomic success, many come to see themselves as “losers” (Lamont 2000). A growing number of working-class individuals isolate themselves due to feelings of worthlessness: their marital rate is declining and fewer are joining civic associations (Cherlin 2014). . . .
[S]tigmatization matters for politics—influencing Donald Trump’s ability to speak to the white working class, for instance. Indeed, an analysis of 73 of Trump’s electoral speeches revealed that he systematically aimed to appeal to this group by validating their worth as workers (Lamont, Park, and Ayala-Hurtado 2017). He did this by removing blame for their downward mobility, that is, by repeatedly pointing to globalization to explain their economic plight. He also systematically put down the competition (immigrants in general, singling out “illegal immigrants,” Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees) and raised workers’ status by stressing their role as protectors and providers of women and children (including against Muslims!). Thus, the recognition gap experienced by workers helps explain the role played by this group in the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This applies not only to Trump’s election, but also to Brexit (Dodd, Lamont, and Savage 2017) and to populism more generally (Bonikowski 2017).
Workers are on the move, which creates a huge opportunity for reviving the fortunes of unions and democracy. The meaning of the “Great Resignation” is widely debated, but it seems to reflect a broad rethinking among workers about the conditions they’ll accept. Bharat Ramamurti, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, proposes it be renamed “the Great Upgrade” and contends that “Workers are quitting to go take new, better-paying jobs,” citing an important chart from the Economic Policy Institute:
But all this hasn’t just been individualized action. While we are nowhere near the level of collective worker action of the 1930s, there is an upsurge of worker militancy.
A series of galvanizing labor struggles — at iconic companies like Nabisco, Kellogg’s, John Deere, Kroger, and Starbucks, among taxi workers and Columbia graduate students in New York and elsewhere — suggest a new willingness to take risks and organize. The big defeat of the year was at Amazon’s Bessemer plant, but Amazon’s illegal installation of a ballot box directly outside the warehouse recently led the NLRB to order a new election, starting February 4th.
As Steven Greenhouse puts it in “Workers in the U.S. Are Rising Up. Can they turn their anger into a movement?”
Millions of workers are angry –– angry that they didn’t get hazard pay for risking their lives during the pandemic, angry that they’ve been forced to work 70 or 80 hours a week, angry that they received puny raises while executive pay soared, angry that they didn’t get paid sick days when they got sick.
This new upsurge builds on the massively successful Fight for 15 and a Union, which delivered $150 billion in wage gains and other improvements in conditions for workers. Some of this new organizing breaks the rules in encouraging ways. The Fight for 15, for example, embraced a movement logic than a traditional organizing one, while other campaigns have taken unorthodox steps like striking for recognition or following hot shops. And some of the structural changes in the economy –– the rise of the care economy, for example –– have created a massive new constituency, largely women of color, sympathetic to collective organization.
Mary Beth Maxwell has a great piece called “Keep Your Hope Machine Running” that connects these dots and provides many reasons for optimism.
A sustained upsurge of worker organizing, on the scale of the 1930s, is needed to address the crisis of inequality and as a crucial antidote to authoritarianism.
As Alexandra Bradbury writes in Labor Notes, “Since the pandemic began, U.S. billionaires have increased their wealth a staggering 70 percent—while 89 million workers lost their jobs, 20 million aren’t getting enough to eat, and 12 million are behind on the rent.” Obscene economic inequality and pervasive abuse and exploitation of workers are compelling reasons all by themselves for an upsurge of worker organizing. But, as we’ve argued above, there are many reasons to think it would be good for democracy, too. The research cited above suggests a worker uprising would raise the salience of economic inequality as a defining issue in politics and activate identities that make it more likely for all workers to vote . . . and vote left. An uprising would also bring back to center stage the villains in the story — the billionaires and corporations who have rigged the economy to generate massive profits for themselves and misery for workers. Part of the asymmetry in political combat between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats don’t name villains. (Think of Obama’s unwillingness to hold bankers accountable over the foreclosure crisis or the invisible and unchallenged role of corporations in financing opposition to Build Back Better.) Every good story requires villains to propel the action forward — and movements of workers can do what political parties won’t.
Victories by workers in iconic labor struggles, greater leverage for workers in the labor market, and roiling anger at injustice — pushed to new heights during the pandemic — have created the conditions for worker insurgency.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance won a historic victory this fall to lift the burden of crushing debt on taxi drivers, overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color, after a brilliant and inspiring campaign. We highly recommend this profile of the struggle by Molly Crabapple in The Nation, “How the Taxi Drivers Won,” which concludes with this from Bhairavi Desai, the visionary long time leader of the alliance
In a world where left victories are few and the bickering constant, there is much to learn from NYTWA’s success. So when she was recovered from her 14-day hunger strike, I spoke to Desai. What was her advice?
“You have to have the core elements of an organized base of members, a policy, direct action. It needs to be equally creative and militant so it can speak to universal values, as well as capture people’s imaginations,” she told me. “Throughout this thing…we wanted people to know we are going to win. Failure was not an option. So much of the left internalizes defeat. You cannot lead with that. You have to be able to balance the moral high ground with a confidence you can win.”
After a rough few months when progressive energy is at a low ebb because of setbacks on a variety of fronts, the right medicine for what ails us is to return to fundamentals — organizing and recruitment, sharp strategy, speaking in broadly shared values, being willing to take big risks, and, above all, having and projecting the confidence that we can win.