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Our Segregation Problem

Throughout the United States, racial separation remains a common feature of collective life. The consequences are significant for left political organizing aimed at building a multiracial working-class majority.

A suburban development in Chapel Hill, North Carolina ,Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison/ Getty Images

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Tom Watson, a white congressman from Georgia, worked diligently to organize white and Black farmers into the Populist Party. He sought to appeal to the farmers’ material interests, arguing that together, as a united class, they could overcome Southern structures of debt bondage and economic oppression. But Watson’s case was also based on the communal experience he had observed in farmers’ homes. White and Black tenants lived in “adjoining” residences, and “their houses are almost equally destitute of comforts,” Watson wrote in 1892. “Their living is confined to bare necessities. . . . They pay the same high rent for gulled and impoverished land.” 

As Watson drafted these words, states across the South were implementing Jim Crow laws, which determined where Black people could eat, drink, sleep, and use the bathroom, as well as how they could travel and which beaches and parks they could visit. It was not a coincidence that these legal efforts occurred against the backdrop of the rise of Populism. 

Following Reconstruction, white Southern politicians aimed to eliminate spaces where white and Black people could congregate and develop a sense of both community and solidarity. If poor white people had less contact with their Black neighbors, they would be far more likely to defer to white elites. As Watson declared bluntly of the politics of separation: “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.” 

Today, the United States is no longer segregated as a matter of explicit law. But throughout the country—in cities and rural areas, blue states and red ones—racial separation remains a common feature of collective life. Alongside real improvements since the high tide of Jim Crow, recent decades have brought profound backsliding, and many communities and institutions are more segregated now than they were thirty years ago. The consequences are significant for left political organizing aimed at building a multiracial working-class majority. Segregation has long undermined the left’s transformative ambitions, and it remains a direct threat today.

 

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Bernie Sanders’s defeat in the 2020 Democratic primary notwithstanding, the past few years have been marked by positive developments for democratic socialists. For starters, the left is present at the political table in a way that has not been the case in my lifetime. It has a meaningful agenda—expressed in the Fight for $15, the Green New Deal and the Red Deal, Medicare for All, and the vision statement of the Movement for Black Lives—that addresses many of the central problems of American life. 

The left also enjoys genuine popularity and extra-institutional energy. One can see this in the labor unrest and racial justice protests that have punctuated the past half-decade. Public opinion has also shifted in recent years, with universalist economic programs proving especially appealing to voters. 

However, despite these promising signs, the left is at an impasse. The potential constituency for its redistributive vision does not neatly map onto existing party coalitions. The Obama–Biden Democratic coalition is multiracial but not class-based. It is increasingly organized around cultural aspirations that especially tie together college-educated white voters with minority groups. Its political aims involve an ameliorist but not transformative economic and racial agenda. 

Still, whatever its limitations, this is a coalition that captures a majority of the electorate. In a functioning democracy, that majority would be sufficient to implement significant policy changes. But our institutions are riddled with anti-democratic flaws—most obviously, a state-based system of representation that gives small population centers disproportionate power in electing senators and presidents and, through them, in appointing federal judges with lifetime tenures. 

The result has been the entrenchment within the Republican Party of a white minority coalition that projects political power well beyond its level of public backing. Meanwhile, the Democratic coalition can win elections but does not wield the supermajority it needs to govern effectively. This paralysis feeds a cycle of social crisis and popular disaffection. It also solidifies party polarization, in turn intensifying the authoritarian direction of the American right. Precisely because the right can gain power without an actual majority, it is incentivized to invest not in cross-party deal-making but in minority rule, including by subverting elections.

In response, democratic socialists posit a transformative majority built on a party realignment. A real class-based politics, left activists and politicians argue, could reach working-class people who either do not vote or are currently part of the Republican base. This realigned majority would retain enough white, college-educated constituents to represent a meaningful expansion—rather than a replacement—of the Obama–Biden coalition. So far, this vision remains theoretical. Sanders’s defeat in 2020 meant that there was never a genuine test of whether he could reshape the Democratic voting base. Since then, Biden’s first term has quashed hopes that his election would augur a new era of reform.

We are thus in a moment of left-wing uncertainty. The Sanders strategy of partial realignment around multiracial working-class politics feels increasingly remote. In part, this is because the Democratic base is built for establishment candidates, which means that the left, outside of a few pockets, is almost always at a structural disadvantage during primary elections. None of this would feel quite so dire if not for the country’s ongoing and overlapping crises, including the right’s autocratic politics. Democrats appear likely to lose their tenuous grip on unified congressional control in 2022—and the party faces the prospect of an even graver and more existential presidential campaign against Trump in 2024.

For good and for ill, the political quiescence of the past half-century is over. But our era of intensified struggle differs in crucial ways from earlier periods of left-wing vibrancy. Activists today operate on a political terrain dramatically altered by neoliberal ascendance and decades of Reaganite cultural and political dominance. These changes have reconfigured the institutions that once brought working people into the left.

From radical Populists in the 1890s to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in the 1960s, left activists have long turned to labor as a site for building cross-racial trust and breaking white working-class deference to business elites.

Unions haven’t always been committed to racial justice. Far from it. The xenophobic Workingmen’s Party of California and the segregated trade unions of the American Federation of Labor are examples of the deeply troubled history of racism and sexism within the labor movement. Yet it also true that, particularly in diverse workplaces, successful union efforts have often been tied to interracial mobilization. As political scientists Paul Frymer and Jacob M. Grumbach have written, many unions developed organizational and leadership “incentives to reduce racial animus among their rank and file.” It was not accidental that in the 1930s the CIO played a central role in shifting white working-class attitudes about race and in linking together racial liberalism and redistributive economic policies in the American political imagination.

In the twentieth century, labor unions provided an intermediary institution between individuals and society, offering a mechanism for making sense of the wider world and for transforming inchoate beliefs into political action. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to say that unions were the most important institution for integrating white working-class constituents into multiracial left political formations. In a segregated society, the workplace was often the only real setting for building political trust among poorer white and Black people. In this way, unions—as spaces where working people could develop bonds—became a partial political substitute for the actual geographic integration that white America resisted. 

For civil rights–era activists such as Bayard Rustin or A. Philip Randolph, unions were crucial to the fight against segregation, but insufficient. They envisioned a society with a multitude of settings—neighborhoods, homes, schools, churches—in which people could encounter one another, recognize common grievances, and develop ties of solidarity. 

In these integrated cultural environments, anti-racist and democratic socialist sensibilities could emerge organically. Although ideally occurring alongside a robust labor movement, the proliferation of multiracial institutions would also relieve some of the pressure on workplace politics. Even in contexts of union conservatism or declining membership, poor white and Black community members would have opportunities to participate in shared projects or develop common goals. 

History took us in a different direction from the one Rustin, Randolph, and King hoped for. Today, unions continue to play an important integrative function. Union membership is strikingly diverse: nearly four in ten members are minorities, nearly half are women, and Black workers have some of the highest rates of unionization. Surveys consistently show that white union members demonstrate lower “racial resentment and greater support for policies that benefit African Americans” than non-unionized white workers do, Frymer and Grumbach write. But the assault on the labor movement since the 1970s has reduced its influence on society. Between 1983 and 2021, unionization rates fell by nearly half.

Further exacerbating the costs of this decline is the stalling and even reversal of integration efforts during the same years. As a consequence of the conservative backlash against civil rights achievements and the decades-long dominance of market logic, Americans continue to live fundamentally separate lives when it comes to race.

The good news is that in fifteen major cities with large Black populations, geographic segregation declined between 1980 and 2010, according to the dissimilarity index, which gives scores indicating, as legal scholar Monica C. Bell writes, “how evenly distributed two groups are across geographic space.” High scores speak to a lack of equal distribution. And even with improvements, scores have remained troublingly high in all contexts. 

The neighborhood of the average metro-area white resident remains more than 70 percent white, despite the white population share of cities decreasing in recent years to just over half. And although middle-class minority families are moving into suburbs, the overall effect of this shift has often been greater separation, with many white families passively rejecting integration by moving to more distant exurbs. As Bell observes, “while between-neighborhood separation within cities has declined since 1970, between-jurisdiction (city versus suburb) separation has increased since 1990.” For all the improvements in cities, many towns have become more racially segregated and more politically isolated from one another. 

One sees similar trends in schools, where the end of legally enforced desegregation has undermined earlier achievements. Today, average public school segregation levels are higher than they were in the late 1980s. The story with respect to churches is better. Between 1998 and 2019, the percentage of American congregants attending houses of worship in which at least eight in ten members are of one race or ethnicity went down from 87 percent to 76 percent. But despite those improvements, the overall numbers suggest churches often persist as spaces of racial and cultural separation.

Finally, although immigrant labor does not always receive much attention in discussions about segregation, undocumented migrants tend to live in more segregated neighborhoods than those with legal status. As for immigrants who find themselves caught in the prison system, noncitizens, regardless of legal status, are often housed in all-foreign jails. As legal scholar Emma Kaufman has highlighted, a majority of noncitizens in federal prison—nearly all of whom are Latinx—are incarcerated in institutions “segregated by citizenship.” 

Despite the persistence of racial separation, there are two major institutions that do increasingly mirror national demographics: the military and the university system. Although the highest-ranking officers are almost exclusively white, officers in general match the racial demographics of society at large, and only 57 percent of active-duty service members are white.

Universities, just like every other major American institution, have a long way to go, as is underscored by persistent concerns about the lack of diverse hiring. Still, they have become settings where white students often engage with minority faculty members and other minority professionals with institutional authority, as well as with nonwhite classmates. In 1968, the average white student attended a college that was only 2.3 percent Black. By 2011, white students on average went to colleges that were more than 10.2 percent Black. And large increases in minority enrollment mean that the current college student population is almost half nonwhite. For many white college students—who may never have had sustained cross-racial relationships before coming to campus—the university can be a racially transformative experience. 

Neither the military nor the university system, however, are ideal sites for left mobilization. The volunteer military, which is relatively small compared with past periods of conscription, inculcates cultural practices built on deference and hierarchy. And it is often a career pathway for veterans into policing and other security jobs. The military is thus an interracial institutional space, but, unlike the unruly draft army during Vietnam, it is fundamentally disconnected from any kind of left-wing insurgency. 

Colleges reach a broad swath of the public. About 40 percent of the total U.S. population has some type of college degree. But higher education’s well-documented role in reproducing class status and intensifying economic inequalities has its own double-edged effects. Though universities may well facilitate cross-racial alliances, this version of cross-racial identity often coincides with a presentation of multicultural America that is favored by corporate conglomerates and is inaccessible for non-college-educated people. 

The image of the country as depicted by national advertisements—and much of popular culture—is overwhelmingly one of integrated, highly educated, and upwardly mobile family and friend groups. No doubt, it has had its positive effects. For instance, it is not surprising that people embedded in such a cultural world would find Trump’s racism and xenophobia distasteful. Advertisements and entertainment have clearly impacted, for the better, views about everything from interracial relationships to LGBTQ rights. Yet this overarching vision hardly reflects the experiences of many on the outside looking in, whose day-to-day lives and interactions with institutions produce a very different reality from the one on television. 

Above all, the fact that the university system is perhaps the largest relatively desegregated institution in American life speaks to a broader problem. People without college degrees still compose a substantial majority in society, and whites without a degree make up nearly 38 percent of the electorate. If you are white and do not attend college—against the backdrop of a greatly reduced union presence—there are limited sites in which you are likely to have continuous and meaningful interracial interactions. Simply put, the institutional spaces for building working-class multiracial identity are vanishingly few. 

If anything, college attendance is now an important component of contemporary political polarization among white voters. Income has become a far weaker indicator of whether a white voter will support Democrats or Republicans than their educational level, with college-educated white constituents backing Democrats by a twenty-point margin in 2016 and by a twenty-eight-point margin in 2020. 

An additional driver of the rightward drift of white non-college-educated voters is neighborhood segregation patterns. Upwardly mobile, multiracial communities might be emerging today, but the educational and cultural sorting in these communities means that they notably do not include poorer white families. Instead, a poorer, non-college-educated white family may well live beside a wealthier but also non-college-educated white family in a thoroughly segregated community.

Such neighborhoods cut against the idea that poor white families occupy a common material position with working-class minority ones. Tom Watson thought that Black and white tenants living next to one another would strengthen shared class bonds, but that is not how these neighborhoods have been built. As a result of the long history of discriminatory practices by both the government and private sector, along with cycles of white self-isolation, poor white families have tended to live in segregated neighborhoods more prosperous than those of even middle-class Black and Latinx families. A study of housing trends between 1990 and 2009 found that white families with an annual income of just $13,000 on average lived in neighborhoods where the median income was $45,000, whereas a Black family with an annual income of $50,000 lived on average in a neighborhood where the median income was $43,000. 

For white residents in these areas, daily activities—in local schools, churches, playgrounds, and businesses—reinforce a deep sense of shared cultural connection. Despite their class divide, rich and poor white families in such communities feel more common ground with each other than either would with the university-educated white progressives who dominate the Democratic Party or with working-class minority families. 

Notably, rising poverty levels and declines in the traditional markers of neighborhood quality over the past decade in white rural communities have not unglued these entrenched solidarities. If anything, the economic breakdown of poor white communities has fed into a Trumpist rather than a democratic socialist class politics. 

The reasons are numerous. But they involve both a disconnect of rural whites from Democratic Party narratives of upward professional mobility and the very real weaknesses of party policies. As historian Matthew Karp notes of the Obama years, “Homeowners suffered foreclosure while Washington bailed out Wall Street; health insurance remained ruinously expensive and very far from universal; inequality rose as fast as ever.” These elite failures, combined with the broader disappearance of alternative working-class institutions, meant that rural economic decline did not lead white constituents to vote their pocketbook. It simply intensified cultural separation from left and liberal constituencies.

Lawrence Goodwyn, the historian of the Populist movement, argued that the goal of left mobilization has long been to move people out of the “received culture” that shapes their lives to a “movement culture” that provides energy for transformative projects. Such projects require more than simply making arguments about economic interest. They require a cultural infrastructure, in which left values are present in the everyday institutions that organize people’s experiences. Without that infrastructure, it is incredibly hard to shift people’s political views. Perhaps the greatest challenge democratic socialists face in building a cross-racial class-based alliance is the lack of access activists have to the working-class white constituents they seek to recruit. 

Conventional wisdom tends to depict integration in terms of educational and material improvements for Black people. But it was also about transforming white political identity. Indeed, fears about cross-racial class coalitions were a driving force behind the legal establishment of segregation in the first place. And, unsurprisingly, segregation in America persists as a major constraint on the potential of left politics. 

India Walton’s defeat in the 2021 mayoral race in Buffalo, New York, exemplifies some of the ways that dynamics around race, class, and cultural separation impose roadblocks for left expansion, even in deep-blue settings. Walton’s primary victory highlighted how a working-class Black candidate pursuing a transformative economic agenda could succeed in a diverse, overwhelmingly Democratic city. She ran strong in poorer neighborhoods with large Black populations, who responded to her economic message and lived experience.

After she won the primary, her opponent, incumbent Byron Brown, refused to leave the race and ran in the general election with a write-in campaign paid for by wealthy developers. Republicans chose to back him rather than field their own candidate, causing the electoral map to shift. Strong white support for Byron, particularly in wealthier and more conservative neighborhoods, was a key reason for Walton’s loss.

Perhaps most tellingly, Byron skillfully turned Walton’s working-class background into a liability, especially in those communities. In the general election, Brown hammered Walton over reports that she had unpaid parking tickets and owed back taxes. In places like the wealthy Delaware District, which went for Walton in the primary but shifted to Brown in the general because of non-Democratic voters, his negative ads—including ones that mischaracterized her police-budget proposal as entailing extensive layoffs—had a major impact. Brown succeeded in presenting Walton’s reforms as a threat to both law and order and municipal jobs. And he also reframed her personal history as raising questions about her competence and responsibility, not as indicative of the perennial challenges facing poor and working-class people in America. 

The election in Buffalo offered a test case for the hurdles facing serious socialist candidates running for major offices at the city level and beyond. Indeed, the dynamics that led to Walton’s defeat also suggest why we are seeing the broader success of minority Democrats who are pro-business, conciliatory toward the police, and deeply critical of the party’s left wing. 

Like white law-and-order politicians of old, these figures—including Brown, Eric Adams in New York City, and the recently appointed San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins—present a democratic socialist agenda as dangerously radical. But they do so while combining minority support with the support of white Democratic constituents, including educated professionals. Moreover, as embodiments of the party establishment, they are also likely to maintain traditional union leadership backing. 

Many of Brown’s white supporters were solid Democrats and may well have supported Walton against a Republican. But having the option of voting for another Democrat, who notably was also a minority, made a difference. In a sense, the Obama–Biden coalition suggests a basic predicament. A working-class and democratic socialist Black candidate like Walton could produce Black enthusiasm, grounded in shared struggles and experience, but establishment Black politicians have built-in advantages and are especially effective at running against left agendas. To minority audiences, they can tar non-minority leftist candidates or even campaign workers as outsiders, whose radical agendas are inconsistent with the needs of the local community. And for enough white Democrats, they can present working-class life experiences—like an impounded car—as real question marks for a Black socialist candidate in ways that do not code as racist.

For now, leftists who run as Democrats are stuck within a voting coalition constructed for their mainstream Democratic opponents. At the national level, efforts to break free from this coalition and pursue party realignment confront the cultural isolation of left activists from non-college-educated white constituencies. In the context of labor’s decline, those constituencies are often thoroughly insulated within conservative and segregated institutional spaces. And at the local level, even in deep-blue contexts, establishment candidates seem better equipped to bind together the Democratic Party’s multiracial voting blocs. 

These structural impediments are not insurmountable, but they underscore the driving need for workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods that sustain a left cultural world. Simply put, there is no shortcut around the arduous work of rebuilding the institutional spaces that would give everyday life to movement politics.

Indeed, part of what feeds left malaise today is the implicit wish behind the Sanders campaigns: the hope that victory could have somehow unblocked the political process, perhaps even realigned voting patterns, all without having to undo the cultural and political damage wrought by the past half-century. In truth, though, this was never a real possibility. Even with a Sanders presidency, the democratic socialist left’s capacity to govern effectively—let alone to entrench a durable majority coalition—would have been severely limited, as we are witnessing even under Biden. The Constitution’s anti-democratic dysfunctions, the right’s deepening radicalization, and the likely extreme reaction against Sanders specifically—from business interests and the national security and carceral sectors—all would have generated overwhelming pushback. 

But the fact that the conversation now is about blockage rather than irrelevance speaks to how dramatically circumstances have changed since Sanders announced his first presidential run in 2015. Embracing the left’s emergence—whatever the limitations—means accepting the unavoidability of political struggle. It means appreciating that to the extent that the country is now thrown back into history, the structural sediments that have set in since previous periods of left vibrancy cannot be wished away but have to be uprooted across a multitude of fronts.

To start, we need to invest in a full electoral infrastructure, even while recognizing the disadvantages of the Democratic Party’s current voting base. That means expanding the number of candidates who can challenge centrist Democrats at every level and staff every bureaucratic position in local, state, and federal government. 

It also involves pushing national legislative reforms that reduce the institutional obstacles to democratic socialist coalition building. The most obvious area to address is electoral and constitutional reform, particularly around expanding and equalizing voting rights. There is notable liberal-left agreement on the need to reform our distorted, state-based, and gerrymandered framework. 

Along with voting rights, union expansion is the other key national legislative project that should be prioritized. It is no doubt true that much of traditional labor leadership, given its embrace of the Democratic establishment, has tended to be a hindrance rather than an aid in recent intra-party races. Still, unions remain a central institution for any large-scale multiracial working-class project and are critical for reaching rightward-drifting working-class white voters. 

Unfortunately, unions include only a small percentage of workers in the United States, and they organize at a severe disadvantage in a deeply unfriendly legal environment. Moreover, the Democratic Party’s leadership—regardless of traditional labor support—has placed unionization on the back burner for decades. This has to be reversed. Whether through bills like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act or other, more far-reaching endeavors, the legal terrain must be altered to expand the capacity of workers to join unions and to strike. Labor growth is a foundational building block for sustained left vibrancy and for democratic socialist organizing. 

At a moment when voting rights have been blocked in Congress, calling for further investment in national legislative agendas can feel futile. But 2022 will not be the only time such laws can be pursued. And it remains critical to have clarity—even if only for the future—about how these reform packages can strengthen the practical power of left movements.

Above all, the long-term goal has to be nothing less than finally overcoming the segregated nature of American life. Given the requirements of democratic socialist mobilization, a clear entry point can be found in those sites that combine issues of segregation with labor and class politics. Perhaps no institutional setting does this more explicitly than education. Educational occupations are diverse, they have the highest rates of unionization, and they were responsible for nearly one in five work stoppages during last year’s strike wave. 

Schools demonstrate the interrelation between racial and class hierarchies. Indeed, the current assault on teachers over “critical race theory” should be read as part of a longstanding right-wing push to privatize schools—an attack on labor, on the emancipatory capacities of the state, and on the anti-segregation vision of the civil rights movement. Privatization efforts allow white families to opt out of more integrated spaces in favor of self-isolation, and underscore that conservatives view both teachers and public schools as cultural and political threats. 

By contrast, in the recent wave of teacher strikes, education workers have mobilized on behalf of resource redistribution and educational equality in a way that links anti-segregation and economic demands. Earlier this year, Minneapolis teachers and support staff went on strike to demand a range of improvements—better pay, more overall funding, an increase in the number of school social workers and counselors, and improved retention of minority teachers. These changes are aimed at reversing the steady exit of students and teachers from the public school system by improving the quality of education and promoting the institution as an integrated space. 

The push for affordable housing is another way to address economic grievances while building new multiracial communities. With housing costs surging, the idea of housing as a public good that should be broadly available enjoys real popular support. Policies such as changing zoning laws, increasing tenant rights, and creating community land trusts all have the potential to transform American neighborhoods. So, too, would significant collective investment in public housing, including at the state and local level. We are beginning to see this latter effort spread across the country, and it should be dramatically expanded. Taken together, these initiatives broaden the range of locations where lower-income families can live, redistribute material resources, and address racial housing barriers that persist even without explicit segregation laws. 

Contemporary activism focused on education and housing is also noteworthy because of how it engages with the history of white backlash against desegregation in the 1970s and ’80s. Efforts such as busing were hijacked by conservative opponents and framed as zero-sum conflicts between white and minority families over who reaps rewards and who bears burdens. In contrast, teacher strikes today are often based on the idea of “bargaining for the common good,” with a focus on universal reinvestment to benefit a cross-racial alliance. Similarly, the push for affordable housing emphasizes class-based multiracial needs, which have become increasingly pronounced among working-class white families over the past decade. 

A focus on decriminalizing immigration is another clear arena for connecting segregation with labor politics. As with the 2006 immigration protests, in which millions mobilized nationwide—including in enormous May Day events—to change existing policy, a meaningful immigrant-freedom project could tie together multiracial coalition building and class-based demands. 

An empowered immigrant community is one that can press both in workplaces and in politics for a racially and economically reconstructive agenda. Indeed, making good on immigrant rights has the real potential to counter right-wing appeals to Latinx voters, by emphasizing the viability of democratic socialist mobilizing. Furthermore, rights expansion for immigrants almost inevitably pushes back against the type of racial separation often experienced by undocumented people in particular. 

But here we find a chicken-and-egg problem not unlike the one faced by desegregation efforts in the 1970s. In that setting, greater desegregation would have built trust and solidarity across communities, further deepening coalition building. But the success of an integration process seemed to require that very trust and solidarity in the first place. Similarly, there is a reason that Biden has deferred to key aspects of Trump’s draconian border policies. Although general views of immigrants have improved in recent years (partly in reaction to Trump’s odiousness), there is little to no political will—even among Democrats—for transformative goals such as systematic decriminalization and noncitizen voting. These policies would have huge power-building effects for left coalitions, but their prospects are undermined by the realities of our received culture, to use Goodwyn’s term. 

Immigration thus highlights a long-standing American predicament, one that also links the Jim Crow past to today: how do you get a majority within a polity—including insiders who enjoy material and status benefits from the subordination of outsiders—to alter the terms of who is seen as part of that very community? 

There are no simple answers. But a key part of the solution is for more and more Americans to come to believe that the problems they face can be overcome only by embracing equal and effective freedom for all, including for those on the margins. For this to occur, individuals must, on a day-to-day basis, inhabit institutions that promote cross-group solidarity and exchange. Thus, building these sites, however slow and piecemeal the process, is the essential cultural precondition to having some insiders embrace—out of material and, eventually, moral commitments—new and richer forms of community.

Leftists today are struggling to break out of a binary that increasingly defines American life. On one hand, right-wing politicians offer a warped version of class politics, particularly for white non-college-educated voters, by combining racial solidarity and xenophobia with populist attacks on “elites.” On the other hand, we have a multiracial liberalism, but one that largely fails to provide a culturally meaningful account of working-class identity, interests, and community. 

 Education, housing, and immigration policies are just three possible levers to escape the governing binary. They are good on their own terms, as ways of improving working people’s lives. But they also provide tools for recalibrating the nature of American cultural life. Steady and hard-won changes to schools and housing could transform the type of shared worlds people inhabit, in ways that make the received culture easier to dislodge.

Given the present dynamics, the old 1930s Popular Front coalition—overwhelmingly working class—may well be off the table for the left, at least for the foreseeable future. The institutional legacy of decades of left dormancy constrain any efforts to fundamentally reorient the Democratic Party’s voting base, or to fully reclaim white non-college-educated constituents. 

But an integrated world in which an emancipatory version of class politics could resonate more broadly can and must be pursued. It may produce a tense grafting onto the existing Democratic coalition. Again, this is because such efforts effectively aim to add working-class white support, and class-conscious political identity, to a party frame built more or less around a story of multiracial upward mobility and meritocratic achievement. These two approaches sit uneasily together, but seeking to expand rather than replace the existing Democratic coalition for now remains the political pathway. 

The end of Tom Watson’s story is a profoundly dispiriting one. In the wake of the Populist Party’s defeat, Watson eventually blamed Black people for the collapse of interracial solidarity. By 1920, he had rejoined the Democratic Party and been elected to the Senate. He became a notorious hate-monger, supporting nativist, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist politics. Nothing better illustrates this turn of events than Watson’s use of his newspaper to help spur the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man framed for the murder of thirteen-year-old factory girl Mary Phagan. 

Watson’s biography embodies the tragic swing this country has so frequently taken from the hope of multiracial democracy to the extreme retrenchment of white solidarity and class hierarchy. But history is not destiny, even if one must be clear-eyed about the structural obstacles in the path of any transformative project. 

Perhaps the hardest feature of our moment is the pervasive sense of incompatible time horizons. There is a need to address immediate crises and impending political disasters (including the specter of Trump’s return), while the work of left institution-building may require decades. But that tension is written into the long-standing advantages that received cultures almost always have over movement ones. It is an expression of the uneven terrain that American efforts at radical change have routinely confronted. And, like our left predecessors, we need forthrightness and courage to face down the roadblocks to a future we demand but cannot guarantee. 


Aziz Rana teaches law at Cornell University and is the author of The Two Faces of American Freedom.

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