May Day thoughts: The struggle to create a new working-class left | #194 – May 1, 2022
The connection between vote choice and identity is much stronger than the tie between partisan loyalty and economic preferences — and would take decades to unwind
Hi readers, and happy May Day (or International Workers Day, depending on your politics and/or continent).
I was going to take today off, given the holiday, but instead, I decided to write a couple of paragraphs about the labor movement in America. Specifically on how the politics of labor and values of working-class voters will shape the future of US politics.
A good starting point here is the above hyphenation: I wrote “working-class voters,” not “the working class.” One reason that psephologists and political journalists use the hyphenated form today is that it’s easy to lump voters who do and do not have college degrees into different groups, inferring that “working-class” voters vote that way because they don’t have degrees. But what this obscures is that the concept of a united “working class” does not apply to today’s economy or our politics. “Working-class” is not the same as “non-college-educated.” While workers across industries used to unite in solidarity with each other, bound together by a contract for labor in a capitalist economy they viewed as hostile to their interests, today their lives are increasingly fragmented — and their politics are increasingly based on their identity.
The basic mechanism here is that the class-based structure of our politics that stemmed from the organization and movement of people and goods into a consistent hierarchy across geographies and industries no longer exists. Corporate interests (in both political parties) have forcibly replaced it with a politics of identity, which posits that our material interests are not the uniting bonds between us — our demographics are. And that gives way to some dynamics of polarization that I have noted on this blog previously.
In terms of what we can observe in voter psychology, this all means that social issues have gotten more predictive of our voting behavior than workers’ preferences on economic policy.
This framing of the evolution of American politics as a shift away from class and towards our various identities has been used by fans of left-leaning “economic populists” such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to argue for a specific agenda for the Democratic Party. To these people, Democratic politicians should almost exclusively campaign off the popularity of redistributive economic policies like Medicare and Social Security, universal child care, and a wealth tax — eschewing policy on more polarizing issues. They believe that the social and identity politics of the “woke left” are detrimental to The Cause and put a ceiling on the party’s potential vote share — especially in those northern battleground states where politics has a material tradition of rooting in unions and a united working class.
Well, that’s a good theory, but the thing I always come back to is that this is all fine and good until you have to actually reorient politics around economics instead of identity!
The facts of our politics — the identity-driven nature of our voting behavior today and right-skewed information network chief among them — mean the don’t-do-unpopular-social-policy-instead-focus-on-popular-economic-proposals people have few actual levers to pull to enact their reorientation of American political conflict around class and capital. Neither the forceful social democracy of Bernie Sanders nor the economic populism of Elizabeth Warren has even been able to win support among a majority of Democrats, much less a majority of all voters. There is a reason that Democratic voters in 2020 nominated a candidate from the stay-the-course-and-balance-the-needs-of-different-parts-of-the-coalition faction.
Further, I’m wondering what it is, exactly, that these people are proposing left-leaning politicians do that they’re not already doing! Both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are pushing for an ambitious economic safety net for everyday Americans. Reports are now that the sitting president wants to get rid of $10,000 of student loan debt! Every Democrat except Joe Manchin is in favor of a permanent expansion of pandemic child care provisions! All the while vulnerable Democratic Senators are playing up right-leaning stances on things like immigration and border security. That sounds pretty economically progressive and socially liberal to me.
Besides, it’s worth remembering that the structure of our politics today is a product of several long-term trends that are inherently very hard to reverse. Are the economic populists just too optimistic about what they can accomplish?
When thinking of why people vote the way they do, I’m reminded that, in 2016, a voter’s score on the so-called “racial resentment” scale was a strong predictor of switching from voting for Obama to Trump than any other demographic or attitudinal variable: Not opinion on immigration or abortion; not support for Medicare for all; not voters’ educational attainment nor their income nor their age.
The implication of this is that, since the salience of race in our politics and especially among working-class voters is so high, maybe the economic populists are quietly implying that their best bet is for white Democratic candidates from really white states to campaign with white working-class people but not labor leaders of color to create a renewed coalition of white working-class voters that is loyal to Democrats. And, hey, Michael Dukakis did win West Virginia! A May Day parade in New York City this week was noticeably diverse and led by people of color, not whites. Do these people just think that that type of rally is too toxic to the Democratic brand in West Virginia and that leaders should distance themselves from it?
Well, if so, that seems both (a) pretty insidious to The Cause they are advocating for in the first place and (b) nearly antithetical to lots of the things Democrats believe in today: equity, political equality, fairness, social spending, etc. Nobody who is serious believes that driving a wedge between working-class white would-be Democrats and existing Democratic people of color is a workable solution to a shrinking coalition.
So what does a sizable and influential Democratic working-class look like today? And how do Democrats actually get there? Maybe it looks like Biden canceling a good portion of student debt while telling Elizabeth Warren to stop publishing op-eds about how his party is failing progressives, and that they’ll have to suck up some concessions on other social issues to win the Senate. Maybe Joe Biden has to nominate a white male centrist Vice President to change the identity of the party. I could go on….
Whatever “it” is, it would be nice to have some specificity from the people who think this is easy. I happen to think it is a pretty hard problem to solve. You’re not just going to remake the working class overnight.
Talk to you all next week. More below the fold.
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What I’m reading
Not reading, but on this May Day, listening to: This podcast, which helped me understand the history of labor in America and how the right captured the votes of working-class voters.
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