Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Class Consciousness and the White Working Class

My old friend, Andrew Levison, has a new piece on The Democratic Strategist website that is very much worth reading. Levison argues that Democrats, as they endlessly debate the "Why does Trump appeal to the white working class?" question, fail to understand a key aspect of Trump's appeal--that he connects to a sort of class consciousness widespread among this group.
"[T]hree explanations for Trump’s popularity—inherent racism, anxiety and hostility to social and cultural change and anger at the failure of the established parties to deal with legitimate economic problems—have up to now dominated the discussion of Democratic political strategy. But there is another perspective that is entirely absent from the discussion. It suggests answers to the two questions above and has profoundly important implications for the formulation of a successful Democratic strategy.
It is that Trump—vile and dishonest as he may be—very successfully tapped into a deep mental and emotional perspective in white working class life—a distinct kind of modern class consciousness, class resentment and class antagonism that is completely unacknowledged in current discussions regarding how to reach these voters but plays a critical role in their political thinking....
This is a different form of class consciousness than the traditional radical conception but it meets the key characteristic of the term—a perception of society as sharply divided between ordinary people and elites and a sense of resentment those below feel at the treatment they receive from those above.
A key difference between the modern white working class conception and the traditional radical view is that white working people do not visualize a single dominant “ruling class” or “power elite” above them but rather see three different and distinct groups, none of which totally dominates society but each of which in one way or another mistreats them and holds them in contempt.
The first group is the political class and as anyone who has ever listened to focus groups or has actually spent time with white working class Americans can attest many working people do indeed see politicians as a completely distinct, utterly corrupt and entirely parasitic class that lives in complete isolation from ordinary people in a rarified environment of fancy ballrooms and expensive restaurants, big money contributions and backroom deals that invariably end up screwing ordinary Americans.
The second group is the “Wall Street” financial elite that makes decisions in faraway office towers that destroy local community jobs and mom and pop businesses. They reside in fancy gated communities filled with mega-mansions and send their children to private schools with country club entrance procedures that would never allow the children of ordinary workers admission even if those workers could afford the expensive tuition.
The final group is the “liberal” elite—the heterogeneous group of college professors and students, Hollywood actors and producers, music and fashion producers and TV, newspaper and magazine columnists and commentators. They are not seen as a financial ruling class but rather as a social group that dominates and controls the culture—what one sees on TV and in the movies, what is taught in colleges and universities, what is written in editorial page commentaries and what is produced and sold in the fashion and music industries. They are perceived as affluent urban dwellers who live in expensive, gentrified urban communities or in charming college towns. They drive “sophisticated” costly cars, drink Latte’s, casually travel to Europe on vacations and wear Patagonia vests and Birkenstock shoes to subtly announce their discernment and sophistication. They are also seen to exercise substantial political power, using the Democratic Party as their vehicle. This power to impose their “liberal” agenda is obtained through a cynical alliance with minorities who are bribed to vote for Democrats by various kinds of “handouts,” special government programs or preferential treatment.
Working people have distinct feelings about these three different groups but see the members of all three as living in worlds that are economically and sociologically high “above” them and who resemble each other in their indifference to the needs of ordinary people and their contempt for them as human beings. All three groups are emphatically perceived as “them” and not “us”."
Since Hillary Clinton was associated with all three of these detested groups, it was easy for Trump to evoke this class consciousness and turn it against her.
Levison's analysis also has important implications for future Democratic strategy. Levison notes:
"[T]raditional progressive strategy which appeals to white workers primarily (and often exclusively) by offering a long list of progressive populist programs and policies will simply not be sufficient to win back the support of those who defected to Trump. Right now the major debate among Democrats is over what the proper degree of radicalism for such programs should be. The implicit assumption is that there is some optimal set of programs and policies that will win the support of white workers.
But the reality is that neither the package of cautiously progressive economic policies that Hillary Clinton offered in 2016 nor the more ambitious set of policies that Bernie Sanders offered can by themselves convince white workers to vote Democratic in 2018. The reason is simple. There is now such a complete degree of cynicism about the political system that many if not most white workers simply do not believe that any real reforms can possibly be enacted so long as the system remains the same. As a result the abstract debate between different national health care proposals or job guarantee plans will inevitably appear to them as essentially and indeed almost entirely irrelevant.
What is required instead are Democratic candidates who can convince white working people that they are genuinely “on their side” “will fight for them” “understand their problems” and “share their values.” These are characteristics working people say they consider important again and again on opinion polls. Specific programs and proposals are necessary but play an entirely subsidiary role.
In fact, the central difficulty progressive candidates face, unless they actually come from the communities where they are running for office, is how to genuinely learn about and then show real respect for the culture and community where they are campaigning and to see the world through the eyes of the people who live there."
A tall order. But it's gotta be done.

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