Backlash Forever

Backlash Forever

It’s time to abandon the assumption that workers have a “natural” home on the center-left. But we should also reject the idea that social conservatism always lies latent within working-class culture, ready for right-wing politicians to activate.

Demonstrators at the Hardhat Riot in New York City in May 1970 (Stuart Lutz/Gado/ Getty Images)

The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution
by David Paul Kuhn
Oxford University Press, 2020, 416 pp.

Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality
by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
Liveright, 2020, 288 pp.

When a young Chuck Schumer arrived at Harvard in 1967 as a freshman, he joined the great political stirring of those years—who could resist it? But Abbie Hoffman he was not. “I was faced with what Alexander Hamilton called mobocracy,” Schumer recalled in his coauthored 2007 book Positively American. He became a College Democrat, canvassed for Eugene McCarthy, and eschewed the radicals. Campus members of the New Left’s Progressive Labor faction horrified him, and he felt “sickened” seeing protesters scream at cops. “The police weren’t pigs. They were the people I’d grown up with. They were my neighbors. My friends. They were the Baileys [imaginary Irish-American Long Islanders with whom Schumer consults on decisions].” Soon enough, Schumer’s party—the College Dems and, of course, their friends the non-college Dems—would pay the price. “By the late ’70s,” Schumer observed, “the Baileys did not trust the Democrats anymore, and the Democrats weren’t listening to the Baileys.”

Despite decades of doting on the Baileys of Massapequa, the senator never figured out how to win them back: in 2016, he tells us, Joe Bailey voted for Donald Trump. Although 1968 is now closer in time to the Russian Revolution than to our moment, the backlash still rules: the Silent Majority, the Reagan Democrats, the Kansans who have something the matter with them, Joe the Plumber, the elegized hillbilly, the Rust Belt diner patrons, Joe Bailey. At each election, these archetypes of the white working class line up for the unrepentant oligarchs of the Republican Party.

How did the Democrats lose the Baileys? Two new books are the latest to take on the question: David Paul Kuhn’s The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution uses narrative history to make an argument that has been recited so often since the late 1960s that it has taken on a ritualistic quality: to be American is not enough, one must be positively so. Fail to perform the proper rites of patriotic adoration, and the Cossacks will come riding in on the Long Island Expressway, pillaging and burning. This is ersatz class analysis, which passes off the most privileged fraction of the working class as a stand-in for the whole. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality traverses somewhat similar territory. Taking a more serious approach, these eminent political scientists see Trump as the result of a crisis of the historic compromise between elites and democracy, and the phenomenon of rank-and-file support for oligarchy as a kind of politics of distraction. Though more clear-headed, their book, too, rests on mechanical assumptions about the relationship between class and political behavior.

It’s time to abandon this story, which assumes both that workers have a “natural” home on the center-left, yet also that social conservatism always lies latent within working-class culture, available for the right-wing politician ready to activate it. Rather, the establishment of working-class solidarity in industrializing societies between roughly 1870 and 1970 was the deliberate effort of the countless militants and activists who turned a shared social experience into a common political orientation. Certainly, the defeat of the workers’ movement in the decades since has been aided by the fanning of the flames of cultural grievance. But while this reversal has benefited elites and the culture-warrior right-wing politicians they own, others too have stood to gain.

What both of these books miss is the role of liberal politics in the erosion of working-class solidarity. Since the early twentieth century, liberal politicians have both depended to some degree on such solidarity to supply mass support and at the same time sought to contain it to sustain their own position. When this project of containment succeeds, class itself begins to diminish as an organizing political force—empowering liberal politicians, but producing oligarchy for society at large.

Class as a political phenomenon is produced through conflict that is always ongoing in some form. But there is no guarantee that electoral struggles between parties will mirror or even clearly express the struggles between classes.

In The Hardhat Riot, Kuhn revisits a signal incident in the breakdown of the old New Deal coalition, placing it in the context of the rising culture war of the late 1960s: the day in the spring of 1970 when a mob of construction workers beat the hell out of antiwar demonstrators in Lower Manhattan. Kuhn, who works as a print and television pundit, finds in this moment the key to the political transformations that have remade the country since the 1960s. The riot marks the tipping point when Democrats lost the working class.

To set the scene, Kuhn narrates the key episodes from 1968 to early 1970: the campus occupation at Columbia; the tumultuous Democratic primaries, followed by the eruption of protest and repression at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the urban uprisings and the emergence of “crime” as a national issue; Nixon’s triumph and the rise of the Silent Majority; the 1969 antiwar Moratorium; the invasion of Cambodia; and Kent State, which occurred only days before the hardhat riot and created its immediate context. This is obviously well-trod terrain, but Kuhn summarizes it efficiently. To provide interpretation, he repeats a single refrain: “The people were not with the revolutionaries.”

As critics of the student left—including within its own ranks—have done for decades, Kuhn emphasizes the class difference, even class antagonism, between the blue-collar workers who made up the dissolving base of the Democratic coalition and the radical students asserting themselves on the national stage. One figure, he insists, might have held it together: Bobby. (The harmonics of Buffalo Springfield waft over the pages.) Kennedy’s coalition was “feasible,” Kuhn argues, because he felt genuine concern about crime unlike the rest of the left, which “effectively tolerated [crime] in the name of toleration.”

Without this one miraculous Democrat, things spun out. Rich kids ran wild, aristocrats catered to thugs, and Johnny Paycheck and Blue-Collar Joe stewed their way through the onset of recession at the end of 1969. If this portrait seems broadly drawn, tell it to the working-class men who appear in The Hardhat Riot preceded by a “fleshy nose,” perhaps adorning a “fleshy, broad face” borne along on a “muscular neck”; or the students who are “reedy,” “pale,” and decked out in long hair and buckskin leather or serapes.

Although Kuhn retells events in great detail, often describing archival images at length, his characters are sketched as stylized grotesques. The book creates the general impression that most college student protesters were spoiled sons and daughters of privilege, for example, who mocked cops and workers for their humble station in life—although the student movement was a product of postwar upward mobility and the massive expansion of public higher education. (Kuhn describes free higher education at CUNY as a “boondoggle.”) Kuhn similarly uses members of the building trades—perhaps a “big black Irish hardhat” or a “big man, black Irish”—as stand-ins for the working class as a whole.

Kuhn dismisses, or more often ignores, other organizations active in this moment—the Black Panther Party, the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Young Lords, or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Why, when Leonard Bernstein feted the Panthers, was this not an act of solidarity with a radical organization of the working class? Kuhn approvingly quotes another scholar on the episode, and makes a telling insertion: “Yet as historian Vincent Cannato noted decades after, this high-minded sympathy for the discontented rabble, that ‘radical chic, did not extend to the city’s [white] blue-collar workers.’” For Kuhn’s argument to cohere, such radical and non-white groups can never be at the center, and indeed must not represent the agency of working-class people at all—instead featuring as the objects of elite patronage and as the stimuli of backlash.

Even industrial, service-sector, and public-sector workers—historically always to the left of the building trades—don’t intrude much on Kuhn’s argument. A huge wildcat postal strike, eventually involving hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers around the country, particularly African Americans, began in New York City only a few weeks before the hardhat riot and makes no appearance in the book. It’s not Kuhn’s job to write about everything, but it’s not possible to acknowledge these other varieties of workers’ organizations and activities and sustain his simple story of culture war as class war.

Having painted his backdrop in such broad strokes, Kuhn then stages his play. The middle third of the book consists of an extremely fine-grained narrative of “Bloody Friday,” May 8, 1970. Kuhn has done a great amount of impressive archival research, surfacing versions of the events of the day that were never public, particularly through affidavits and police records. This allows him to deliver a literal blow-by-blow account of the violence. What happened, however, is simple enough to summarize: between 1,000 and 2,000 antiwar protesters gathered to demonstrate on Wall Street. Over the course of the morning, some speakers addressed the crowd; there was some singing. Around noon, several hundred workers left the construction site for the incomplete World Trade Center and, joined by some businessmen from nearby financial firms, initiated a confrontation. Things quickly escalated from yelling to punching as the police stepped out of the way.

Mayhem ensued. Tradesmen chased hippies down and beat them bloody all over the Financial District. The hardhats besieged City Hall and forced terrified bureaucrats to raise the American flag—flying at half-staff in mourning for the shootings at Kent State earlier that week—back to full height. Gangs of them roamed Lower Manhattan and attacked unlucky longhairs. No one died, but a number of the beatings were quite severe. Kuhn says he regrets the violence of the day and wishes the political outcome of it had been otherwise, yet it’s difficult to read the book as anything other than an argument that the kids had it coming.

In any case, Nixon didn’t need long to take advantage. “Last week,” wrote aide Pat Buchanan in a memo to the president, “a group of construction workers came up Wall Street and beat the living hell out of some demonstrators who were desecrating the flag.” Buchanan observed that “probably half the living rooms in America were in standing applause at the spectacle.”

Two weeks after the violence, construction workers rallied around the country, but particularly in New York, to support the president and denounce the antiwar movement—the so-called “Workers’ Woodstock.” Nixon commenced courtship of building trades leaders, bringing them to the White House and eventually appointing “ruddy-faced Irishman” Peter J. Brennan, the Long Island–dwelling president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, his secretary of labor.

The rest of the story is familiar enough. Nixon romps to reelection in 1972, the only presidential race in which the AFL-CIO has declined to endorse the Democrat. Ronald Reagan comes along and solidifies the majority in the 1980s, breaking the New Deal coalition over his knee, sweeping through Rust Belt towns, handing out buttons that read “COSSACKS FOR REAGAN.”

Kuhn ends the book on a note of regret: the supposed loss of the working class by the Democrats has been bad, he acknowledges, for the working class. But the book amounts to an accusation directed at the activist left for going too far and provoking the backlash, inviting the electoral punishment that followed.

Throughout the years covered by The Hardhat Riot, it should be mentioned, the United States was engaged in a campaign against the people of Vietnam that included large-scale internment in “strategic hamlets” that were in effect concentration camps, deliberate starvation, chemical warfare, sexual violence, the mutilation of dead bodies, the intentional targeting of civilians by multiple means including establishment of “free-fire zones,” and the largest aerial bombardment in human history, together causing millions of deaths.

The violence of the war itself enters Kuhn’s narrative, however, only in terms of the loss of American life and the very real uneven toll of the draft in terms of social class. A world-historical atrocity is reduced to a culture-war flare-up whose historical significance lies in how it played in Peoria (or in this case, Massapequa). The book as a whole, in fact, renders judgments on events of all kinds almost purely on the basis of how they registered in public opinion polls. Under the syllogism that protesters were elites and workers were patriots, antiwar protest must therefore have been anti-worker.

The brutality is significant in analytical terms, however, because the death dealt out by the bipartisan war machine stimulated widespread revulsion across lines of class and race. Certainly, the peace movement did not come from the building trades. But a significant minority even within organized labor opposed the war. Despite the hostile neutrality of labor officialdom, nine unions including the mighty United Auto Workers backed McGovern in 1972, and he performed around ten points better with union members than he did with the electorate at large. Sympathy for the antiwar movement, then, was perfectly compatible with callused hands and strong backs.

Kuhn is of course correct that the party of the rich gained a new foothold in sections of the working class in this period, largely delimited by race, later gender, and eventually age. But it has often been the case throughout modern history that elite political forces enlist plebeian elements; that this should occur with the most privileged section of the working class in particular is even less surprising. None of this means that militaristic nationalism flows spontaneously out of proletarian experience.

The Hardhat Riot opens with an invocation of E.P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class, quoting Thompson’s famous prefatory promise to “rescue” forgotten working-class activists from the “enormous condescension of posterity.” Evidently Kuhn intends this epigraph as a guide to his own project. Yet Thompson’s “casualties of history”—Luddites, London Jacobins, bread rioters—were forgotten and derided, their movements written off as irrational outbursts. Kuhn’s hardhats, on the other hand, were greeted immediately by the leaders of the most powerful state in world history as the legitimate voice of working-class grievance.

The events narrated in Making also took place during a long and controversial war, and Thompson discusses at length the phenomenon of the “‘Church and King’ mob”—groups of prowar, anti-radical thugs who terrorized dissidents. Although they gave the appearance of reflecting the organic nationalism of the people, sometimes even targeting wealthy individuals, Thompson insists they must be understood as simply an arm of those in power. A “Church and King” mob might be composed of thick-necked men who work with their hands; this does not make it a working-class revolution.

Hacker and Pierson, both leading scholars of party politics and social policy, are interested in roughly the same question as Kuhn: how can it be that “plutocracy and right-wing populism have not been opposing forces”? In Let them Eat Tweets (which is not about social media), they explore this problem through a consideration of what they name, following political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, “the conservative dilemma.” The dilemma, which emerged with industrialization and democratization, is simple enough: conservatism, the defense of power and privilege, faces an intrinsic challenge in a democracy, particularly one characterized by social inequality. “The entrenched rich wish to hold on to the economic and political resources they have. A system that more broadly disperses political power is a threat to both.”

The dilemma emerged in the nineteenth century, when industrialization and urbanization gave popular forces the opportunity to organize themselves, making them capable of both threatening elite privilege and forming a counterparty to negotiate an accommodation with elite prerogative. This scenario eventually resulted in the give-and-take between the many and the few that we came to call liberal democracy. “How, [conservatives] were forced to ask themselves, do we reconcile the needs of our core constituency with the need to win elections?” They might make economic concessions, approximately the historical path of imperial Germany and later European Christian Democracy. Or like the British Tories—Hacker and Pierson’s favorite example—they might mobilize the forces of nationalism and traditionalism while keeping them contained in respectable forms.

Worsening inequality, however, undermines responsible conservatism, reopening questions once thought closed by democratic consolidation. In an economy that systematically channels income upward, politics becomes a zero-sum struggle rather than the grounds of cross-class compromise, and fearful oligarchs become increasingly antidemocratic.

As the wheels fall off, elites use their political resources to promote cultural division and erode majoritarian institutions. While arguing that the possibility of this dynamic is intrinsic to democratic politics, Hacker and Pierson spend the rest of the book showing how it has manifested in the United States, beginning with the Republican capture of Congress in 1994 and the construction of an organizational basis for corporate discipline of Republican politicians through the rise of the K Street–Capitol nexus.

Over the last three decades, the ratchet has turned in only one direction as inequality has worsened. Initially, Hacker and Pierson argue, the GOP recruited a mass base at the grassroots through alliances with right-wing evangelicals, talk radio hosts, the NRA, and so on. Over time, however, these forces gained the upper hand in the relationship. The party, once a real political organism capable of adopting decisions in the collective interest of its constituency over a long-term perspective, was hollowed out, collapsing into a mere shell corporation for the narrow interests of whichever billionaire patrons manage to hijack it briefly: Sheldon Adelson or Charles Koch or Robert Mercer can, in turns, carve out autonomous fiefdoms inside the party or steer its agenda for a moment. The process narrated by Hacker and Pierson resembles nothing so much as the transformation of the American corporation from an integrated body controlled by judicious managers to nothing more than a nexus of contracts pumping out shareholder value. Trump may have run against this elite takeover rhetorically in the 2016 primaries, but he assimilated its agenda wholesale once in office. The danger of this dynamic is that it teaches Republicans to respond to electoral setbacks by trying to win without popular support, a problem exacerbated by political institutions riddled with checkpoints that inhibit the translation of public opinion into policy.

Overall a clear and compelling account of an all-too-familiar dynamic, Let them Eat Tweets is distinguished by its refusal to exceptionalize Trump. Hacker and Pierson treat him instead as an outcome of the erosion of majoritarian democracy that has accompanied the rise of economic inequality. By offering a slightly abstracted account of our everyday nightmare through the device of the “conservative dilemma,” Hacker and Pierson are able to dismiss some of the problems that have confused and disoriented so many other commentators: the fruitless impasse between “cultural” and “economic” explanations of Trump’s ascent, for example; or the quixotic attempt to draw a line between him and the party at his back.

Hacker and Pierson become somewhat less convincing when they attempt to offer a solution. They call in their final pages for the resounding defeat of the Republicans in the near term to be followed by pro-democratic reforms, then by progressive social policy in the medium term to address inequality. They suggest that such a path might result in the moderation of the Republicans, with figures like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker emerging as models for the party’s future—thereby stabilizing two-party democracy.

I would celebrate if this described accurately the course of our next few years. And certainly, Hacker and Pierson have been right about enough over recent decades that their argument is worth taking seriously. In their previous work exploring the underlying problem of economic inequality, they have argued powerfully for the idea that wealth disparities are the result of institutional design—in essence, a policy choice. Yet there are significant reasons to believe that the most important sources of inequality are structural rather than institutional—that is, they may lie in the pattern of capitalist development more than with the design of social policy. To whatever extent this is the case, the problem will be very resistant to policy measures within the normal bounds of liberalism.

Even if adequate policy solutions are in theory available within something like our existing institutional framework, political transformations of such scale—abolition and Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the civil rights revolution—have always drawn on a history and context of marginal radical activities, and depended on militant and even illegal action at the grassroots to power reform at the top. We may debate which forms of militancy and illegality are likely to succeed and which are likely to fail. But there’s virtually no basis in recent history for imagining that a mere Democratic election victory would cause Republicans to reacquaint themselves with compromise. It seems clear that any such reform program instead would have to be enacted in the teeth of an increasingly uncompromising opposition, and is unlikely to do anything to cool off the inflammation that has gripped both conservatives who thrive on backlash and Democrats who live in terror of it.

The conservative dilemma, in other words, might also be called the liberal dilemma. Liberal parties exist to broker social compromises, which the plutocratic spiral threatens to burst open. If those compromises fail, the liberal power brokers and their clientele fail too. They must therefore continue to make good on the compromise, to show up at the bargaining table ready to make nice, even when their opposition comes armed and rabid. It’s certainly possible that the forces within the Democratic Party pushing for counter-escalation eventually will win out in the struggle over the courts, the structural imbalance of the Senate, and so on; we ought to hope so. But such a victory certainly would likely only take place if forced on the reluctant establishment, which can always point to the risk of alienating the center; and beyond this, against the resistance of the kinds of grassroots right-wing fury that we witnessed against the Obama administration—presumably amplified significantly.

While Hacker and Pierson, unlike Kuhn, grasp the role of political and economic elites in shaping mass ideology, they reserve virtually all of their criticism for the right wing. Kuhn, meanwhile, aims his attack on the grassroots of the left. Neither book acknowledges the critical role of the Democratic Party leadership in the disaster that has befallen American democracy.

Uniquely in the developed world, the Democrats became a major center-left party in the first half of the twentieth century without being a party of workers. Even the most moderate social democratic parties abroad, such as British Labour, sought to gain power through the unity of their constituency and then impose their agenda on antagonistic forces through parliamentary means. The Democrats, on the other hand, maintained a plural coalition that allowed them to encompass sections of the ruling class. It was always a liberal party, standing for social compromise, designed to serve multiple masters. At an existential level, it’s what the party is for.

We might say that this is not altogether Democrats’ fault, but a product of distinctive American conditions—institutional, historical, and sociological. Moreover, beginning in the 1970s, weakened social democratic parties all over the world have become transformed in the image of the Democrats, with coalitions based in the industrial working class growing much weaker along with the decline of blue-collar employment. This process often has been accompanied by cultural aggrievement: former communist bastions in northern France now line up for the National Front.

However, modern Democratic elites have virtually always taken the opportunity to weaken the party’s left wing and strengthen its right unless their hand is forced by confrontational social movements. The party thus triangulates its constituencies against one another: its establishment and the affluent suburbanite base that they crave; working-class voters of color linked to the party by creaking organizational machinery and justified fear of Republicans; white working-class voters the party cannot afford to alienate further; and leftists yearning for a confrontation that would destroy the leadership of the party as it exists now and put an entirely new personnel in place. The Baileys are nothing other than the anthropomorphic form of this strategy of triangulation.

It is unreasonable to expect working-class Americans to behave politically as a cohesive class when the party that supposedly champions their interests will not address or organize them in those terms. As I put the final touches on this piece, it has been announced that Seth Harris, intellectual progenitor of Uber and Lyft’s program to write the gig economy into law, will be on Biden’s labor transition team. A party stretched so thin both organizationally and rhetorically risks becoming meaningless except as a vehicle of opposition to something worse. Discouraging the enthusiasms of the people they ostensibly represent, Democratic leaders regularly trade away the long-term project of building power over the country in return for keeping power within their party.

It’s true, we need the Democrats to win to save our democracy. They’ll keep reminding us of that so that we never ask anything more of them.

Gabriel Winant is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. His book The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in 2021.

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