Class and the Democrats – posted 4/23/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/29/2016
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 29, 2016 under the title “The party that lost its way”.
When historians of the future assess what happened to the Democratic Party in 2016, they will need to look at the issue of class. Americans do not typically talk about it. Class is a dirty secret in American politics. We all pretend that everyone in America is middle class, even when it is so obviously not true.
That buzzword phrase “income inequality” has shattered the myth that everyone in America is middle class. The divide between the top 1% and everyone else has become an enormous chasm. As Bernie Sanders has articulated, over the last 40 years or so, the economic gains have not been equally distributed. The 1% has, in extraordinarily greedy fashion, hogged a hugely disproportionate share of wealth.
Some seem to think it is class warfare just to state the obvious and acknowledge these facts. But there are so many millions of Americans who have been left behind and left out. These folks are everywhere around the country. I do think there has been massive denial about the extent of the dysfunction.
Here is my short list: lousy education and too expensive colleges, exploding college tuition debt, low paying jobs with not enough hours and benefits, high rent and too many evictions, mass incarceration of the poor and minorities and millions still without health care coverage. And that is just for starters.
Historically, at least since the time of FDR, the Democratic party has liked to think of itself as the political party that defended the interests of working class Americans. The legacy of FDR has been powerful. For a long time Democrats were able to ride on FDR’s great accomplishments and prestige.
However, that time is now gone. Many Democrats profess shock at the emergence of Donald Trump and worry about his white working class base. How, they wonder, can these voters support someone like Trump who is a billionaire and hardly a person who can be mistaken as a supporter of worker causes? I think these mystified Democrats are missing the point about why Trump has the followers he has. It has much to do with the failure of the Democrats to offer these left-behind voters anything or to care about them.
Although phony and demagogic, Trump is speaking to real needs. He has been talking to the reality that working class people, including white working class people, are being consigned to being a permanent underclass. Since the 1970’s, the American dream has been wrenched away from these workers. Or to quote George Carlin: “It’s called the American dream because to believe it, you have to be ASLEEP.”
I think the problem for the Democrats is that party leaders have lost their way. They gave up on being the party of the working class, a class that has massively suffered over the last 30 years. Instead they decided to become the party of young professionals, the upper 10%, and they adjusted their message that way. So unlike the Republicans who support the upper 1%, the Democrats support a broader strata of high income people who are comfortably ensconced in capitalism.
The Democrats just assumed the working class would hang around and support them because they had nowhere else to go politically.
Of course, many Democrats have not been reconciled to this shift away from concern about the working class. The struggle between the Sanders and Clinton forces reflects this tension and it is, in fact, a struggle for the future direction of the party.
Many progressives in the party, whether supporting Sanders or Clinton, do want an aggressive attack on income inequality. And when I say aggressive attack, I mean an FDR-style agenda with major job programs, serious infrastructure repair, support for the labor movement, and a new offensive against poverty. The progressives are dead set against more Middle Eastern wars and the interventionism that has characterized American foreign policy for a generation. Serious progressives want a 21st century New Deal.
Part of the concern about Democrats taking large campaign contributions is a recognition that a party beholden to powerful interests is unlikely to do more than window dressing on income inequality. The party has a credibility gap around whether the talk about tackling income inequality is real or meaningless gestures.
Since the 2012 election, the media has featured many stories about Republican autopsy reports. You don’t hear about a Democratic autopsy report. While Democrats have retained the White House for the last two presidential elections, the Republicans have cleaned their clock in state legislatures, governorships, and Congress.
If the Democrats are so successful, how come they keep losing as much as they have all over the country?
I would cite two authors who have most clearly described the class issues inside the Democratic coalition. They are the late Joe Bageant and Thomas Frank, the author of Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?
Bageant, the author in 2007 of the very entertaining, humorous and astute book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, returned home to Winchester Virginia, a solidly working class town, after a 30 year absence. He zeroed in on the class issues and the general decline in the quality of life of his neighbors.
Bageant sympathetically shows how many of his Red State neighbors became Republican by default. He says many of his neighbors have never even met anyone who would self-describe as a liberal. The world Bageant described isn’t politically competitive. It’s Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage on the radio, or contemporary Christian stations. Ultraconservatism is a given.
Bageant did not see liberals or leftists seriously engaging and trying to counter Republican fallacies.He complained yuppie professionals tended to stereotype and look down their noses at blue collar people. He thought the attitude was snobbery but what he described was primarily an absence of effort on the part of progressives to reach his community.
Thomas Frank comes at these issues in quite a different way. He shows how the Democrats instead of being a left party confronting an epic economic breakdown became a party of professionals talking about entrepreneurship. The Democrats have been the party of liberal plutocracy, supporting terrible trade deals and ideas like bank deregulation.
Frank depicts how professional class liberalism is a progressive mirage bathed in its own sense of high self-regard. Listen, Liberal brilliantly unpacks the liberal class ideology: the cult of expertise, the reliance on Big Money, the obsession with meritocracy, passivity toward the destruction of unions and love for techno-innovation.
Like Frank, I would argue that, to date, the Democratic Party has failed to seriously grapple with income inequality. It remains to be seen what kind of Democratic Party we will get. Recent history shows it is not enough simply to assume the Republicans will be so horrible that voters will have no choice but to vote Democratic.
Losing interest in working people is a recipe for Democratic disaster.