The New Politics of Class

And the White Working Class

by Thomas Wells 

The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has given voice to a new class politics in the United States. What do I mean by this? By using the term “class politics,” I am referring to the self-identification by working people of all races and genders that their economic interests are in conflict with those who own and control concentrations of wealth and power in our society (Bernie’s billionaire class). This is often expressed by working people as class antagonisms against, or alienation from the corporate and political elite in society, and it can take many forms. To be sure, working people in the U.S. have always given expression to this economic politics of class, whether consciously or unconsciously. Any authentic socialist analysis should understand how deeply rooted these class antagonisms are in the capitalist system.  

Most of us know for example, that in the 1930’s during the depression when there was widespread unemployment and poverty, mass movements of working people spontaneously formed to demand relief. In 1932 veterans of WWI marched en masse on Washington D.C. demanding bonus payments. Unemployment Councils were organized by the Communist Party, which led to mass demonstrations. We also know that the during this time, millions of workers organized labor unions to help secure their jobs, improve working conditions, provide benefits and increase wages. This was not only a protest against deplorable conditions, it must be understood as part of a class struggle for human dignity and equality. Marx might have described this as an example of the dialectic within capitalism.

Of course conditions are nothing like the depression era now. But working people are still faced with severe hardships. Roughly 46 million Americans live in poverty and many of these are employed. College students are deeply in debt even before they graduate. Many working adults in their 50s face the prospect of retirement in poverty. The growth of job openings masks the reality that most of the jobs are low wage, part time and devoid of benefits. This is the reality now faced by millions of working people of all races and genders.

But adding to this stew is the hard reality that the distress is not equally distributed among all working people. Racism, sexism and homophobia are both overt and covert in the structure and culture of U.S. society. Needless to say, this means there is a great deal of injustice and inequality.

However, what we are witnessing now thanks to Sanders, is a spontaneous, emerging mass movement of working people which has much in common with what occurred during the 1930s. Like then, people now are angry at the system. They feel betrayed and antagonistic toward the corporate power elite. This movement has drawn upon the political momentum created in part by the Occupy movement as well as the 15 Now movement. Sanders is  also drawing in people who have felt so alienated that many have never been politically involved before. While this isn’t easy to diagnose, we can say that it is possible for alienation to run so deep that people will often experience a sense of powerlessness that results in them giving up. It is very exciting that the Sanders Campaign has caused many of these disillusioned to become engaged.

It is in this way that we can observe how the Sanders Campaign has fundamentally changed class politics in the United States. It is precisely this engagement that is so exciting and different. This is also importantly an engagement by the young. Millennials in increasing numbers are articulating a demand for their fair share in society. It is within this group that the class lines are so starkly contrasted in capitalism and so it is this group that has been so heavily drawn to Sanders. I think it is clear that this group will necessarily form the basis of any viable progressive movement beyond the election cycle and this bodes well for the left and DSA. I think it is imperative now that DSA in concert with other progressive groups work to sustain the momentum of this nascent class-based movement created by the Sanders Campaign.

I believe it is also important for socialists to understand that because of the nature of capitalism, the expression of this rage is organic. Absent the structural analysis provided by socialism, there is no predicting exactly how working people will give expression to it. Too often the racial and culture dimensions in our society direct it down destructive and divisive paths. This helps explain why Donald Trump taps into the same class antagonisms as does Bernie. It also explains why many people who identify with Trump will also say they really like Bernie.

For working people then, the source of the antagonism is pretty much the same, but the object of their wrath can be completely different. They can even be contradictory. The poorly educated white male worker supports Trump because he sees the race hate, xenophobia and misogyny as one and the same as his defiant rejection and condemnation of corporate and political establishment. The Sanders supporter who advocates equality for persons of all races, genders and sexual orientations sees these issues as synonymous with the rejection and condemnation of the corporate and political elite. We can thank institutional racism, sexism and homophobia with creating and perpetuating these political divisions in the broad fabric of the working class. But this reality still lays bare the new overt class nature of our politics.

It can hardly be said enough that DSA must find ways to attract persons of color to our  democratic socialist organization. So much work needs doing along these lines, that we must devote as much time and effort as necessary to accomplish this. Yet, to build a powerful political force on the left, we must acknowledge it is necessary to find ways to reach the white working class. It is evident from watching the primaries, that Bernie Sanders has captured a portion of the “Reagan Democrats.” These are people whom none of us imagined would take an interest in a democratic socialist. We have seen that some of these people are also interested in Trump. It seems there interest in both candidates is for the same reasons as I have outlined here.

This presents democratic socialists with both an opportunity and a problem. I think to build a viable mass movement on the left, it must be a working class-based movement. As if we didn’t already have too much to handle, we as DSA organizers must find ways to be inclusive of everyone – including the Reagan Democrats. We must do this to build a real democratic socialist left, whether inside or outside the Democratic Party. But then there is the problem. These Trump supporters can be real racists, sexists and homophobes. Many of them are antiabortion. In short, there is a palpable cultural clash which far right Republican leadership has been capitalizing on for decades. How can we ever bring such people into our organizations? Surely their attitudes would drive away persons of color or the LGBT community. Certainly they would destroy everything for which we stand.

I do not pretend to know all the answers to this dilemma. But maybe part of the answer can be learned from listening to Bernie. For example, in one televised national debate he said: “People are anxious about the fact that they working incredibly long hours. They’re worried about their kids and they’re seeing virtually all the new wealth going to the top one percent. The rich are getting richer and they’re getting poorer. They are looking around. They are looking to Washington and they’re saying ‘What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do for my kids?’ Then somebody like Trump comes along. He says ‘I know all the answers.’ He says ‘We gotta hate all the Mexicans. They are criminals and rapists. The Mexicans are our enemies.’ He says ‘We gotta hate all the Muslims. The Muslims are all terrorists.’ Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer. So what I say to those people who go to Donald Trump rallies, understand he thinks a low minimum wage is a good idea. We say we should stand together to face the real issues of this country. Let’s not allow someone to divide us by race or where we come from. Let’s create an America that works for all of us, not just for a handful on the top.”

Bernie’s message is simple and clear: Please stop wasting your time fighting phantom enemies. Let us unite and fight those at the top who are robbing us of a nation that works for everyone. Your real power to change your life comes from unity, not division. Sanders has repeated this message on many occasions and I think it resonates. I think this offers us an organizing message on the left to begin to connect with the white working class.

Middle income conservative white working people do not want to be taxed, but they also do not want to see their Social Security of Medicare cut or privatized. Many have no difficulty with increasing taxation on the rich and corporations. They hate corporate welfare. When Sanders says that it is time for the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share, this message resonates with this group. This is another message we on the left can use for this group.

It is very important that we continue to recognize the intersectionality of race, gender and sexual orientation with class, in my view. It is just a fact that certain demographic groups are singled out for unique and more extreme forms of exploitation and oppression within our capitalist system. DSA needs to continue to recognize this. We need to work to attract these people and fight for their issues.

But to complete the difficult work of organizing a working class-based movement, we must also find ways to outreach to the white working class. Let’s stop writing off the white working class, and begin to create messages that connect with this group!  

Thomas Wells has been an activist in progressive politics for many years. He was an organizer for Citizens Action, and he continues his involvement in the South San Francisco Bay DSA.   


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