A tale of two cities
I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania—a steel town in the 1940s and early ’50s when I lived there. Beginning in 1941, it was also a union town. The city had been a Republican stronghold, but after the steelworkers voted 4–1 for SWOC, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, it became firmly Democratic. I remember Harry Truman speaking from the back of a railway car in 1948; he carried the city by a large margin. Today Johnstown is a Rust-Belt city, the mills are closed, the population is about two-thirds of what it was in the 1940s.
These days I live in Princeton, New Jersey, a university town, which is also home to many well-to-do doctors and lawyers and to a significant group of brokers and bankers who commute every day to New York. Princeton is not in the top ten of America’s richest cities, but it’s up there. The city’s inhabitants include black and Hispanic minorities, but it is mostly a white and very prosperous community.
These two cities provide a telling account of the 2016 election. Johnstown voted for Trump by close to a 2–1 margin; Princeton voted for Clinton by an amazing 8–1 margin. That’s not the way it used to be—and it’s not the way our old theories about class politics told us it should be. The social base of the Democratic Party right now consists of well-educated professional men and women, a small but probably growing number of corporate types, and a strongly motivated but not sufficiently mobilized coalition of American minorities, chiefly blacks and Hispanics. Together these groups could make an electoral majority, but in practice they do that only about half the time in presidential elections and much less often in state and local elections. The old industrial working class is no longer the major presence in the Democratic Party that it once was; even its unionized fragments are not fully reliable Democratic voters.
The story told by the Johnstown-Princeton comparison has been developing slowly over the past forty years. Its culmination in Trump’s 2016 victory is commonly understood as a response, first, to the great failure and, second, to the partial success of the Democrats and the left in recent years. First, the failure to deal with the economic effects of globalization has generated a politics of frustration and anger at lost jobs, lost benefits, dying towns, and downward mobility—so the election was lost on economic grounds; the issue is class. Second, the (limited) success of affirmative action, the arrival of Hispanic and Asian immigrants on a large scale, and the beginning of a significant campaign against police killings and mass incarceration has generated a politics of white resentment—so the election was lost because of racism. I would add that the achievements of feminism and gay liberation, which may be the most important left victories of our time, have generated uneasiness and active hostility among many religious Americans—so the election was lost because of a traditionalist cultural reaction.
One could sketch from this brief account a model Trump voter: a former steel worker, say, now working at Walmart, with a longstanding hatred of gays and a firm belief that affirmative action means giving good jobs to lazy blacks. But that’s exactly the kind of caricature that we should reject. For the effects I’ve just described move people very differently, and while the overlap of class, race, and culture is certainly present, there are also divergences: frustrated workers who chose Bernie; unemployed and under-employed Americans, many of them black, who voted for Hillary; even a few evangelical Christians who have leftish views on social and economic issues. And always remember that the truly model Trump voter is a good bourgeois.
Vietnam and after
Class, race, and culture all have to be part of any overall explanation of the rightward turn—not only for the United States but also for center-left parties in Western Europe. But the shift from a working-class to a professional-class base is clearest in two countries, the United States and Israel, where questions of war and national security have also played a major part. I will begin with them, focusing on the United States, not because I think these questions are more important than the others (I will come to the others) but because they help to clarify the difficulty of our situation.
The rightward drift of U.S. politics began in the mid-1970s, after the collapse of sixties radicalism and the end of the Vietnam War; the drift in Israel began at roughly the same time, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In both cases, the left was accused of being unpatriotic, soft on communism, pro-Arab. The Democratic Party—not a left party, but it constitutes whatever there is in the United States of a center-left—was painted with the same brush: weak on security, not to be trusted to deal with foreign threats. I watched the beginning of this potent labeling of leftists and Democrats in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1967—another city tale. Antiwar activists organized a referendum on the Vietnam War, and 40 percent of the city’s voters voted against the war. Not a victory, but a significant percentage, given that American soldiers were still engaged in bloody battles. Analyzed by a young sociology graduate student who later wrote for Dissent, the vote suggested the political shifts that were coming. The antiwar activists (I was one of them) lost every working-class neighborhood in the city. The higher the rent you paid, the greater the value of your house, the more likely you were to vote against the war. Our base was among the same kind of people who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in Princeton sixty years later. And we lost the same kind of people who voted for Donald Trump in Johnstown—even though, in ’67, they mostly had good jobs.
A lot happened in those intervening years. But the sense of a left and a Democratic Party that aren’t committed to “our soldiers” and aren’t tough on our enemies has persisted. You could hear its echoes in Trump’s promise to increase spending on behalf of a military “depleted” by a Democratic administration and to remove all restraints on the bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and on drone warfare around the world.
I will leave the Democratic response to these charges to the Democrats themselves. What about the left’s response—including the left inside the Democratic Party? The first thing to say is that there has to be a response. It may make sense politically to focus on domestic issues—the economy, stupid!—but that leaves leftists with nothing coherent to say about American jingoism abroad, and it gives the American people no indication of our commitment to defend their lives when defense is necessary.
The disinclination of the left to deal with foreign policy issues was evident in Bernie Sanders’s campaign and evident again at the very exciting 2017 convention of the (literally) rejuvenated Democratic Socialists of America. Many resolutions were debated at the DSA meetings, but the only one dealing with foreign policy was the resolution calling for a boycott of Israel. Not a word about Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Korea, Venezuela, Ukraine, or Putin’s Russia—nothing. (In the past, the old DSA adopted some predictable foreign policy positions, against U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, for example.) Maybe the convention’s silence was for the best, since the vision of the world behind the boycott of Israel would probably produce strange positions on some of these other countries. Still, at some point, the left has to frame an internationalist foreign policy that is consistent with a commitment to the safety and well-being of our fellow citizens. Anti-imperialism, the common refrain, which translates into a hatred for Israel and, usually, for the United States, obviously won’t work.
The politics of inclusion
The domestic politics of the left over the last many decades has been radically fragmented. It has consisted in large measure of efforts to bring excluded groups—minority groups, except for women—into American society, to help them become full citizens. These efforts have featured particularist claims, like the old line “Black is beautiful,” and so they have earned the name “identity politics.” The rehabilitation of marginalized and degraded identities is morally necessary; it deserves our political support. We shouldn’t be afraid of particularism when it is in the service of equality. But the term “identity politics” is a misnomer: for the greater number by far of the protagonists of this politics don’t aim at group aggrandizement (my identity above all others) but at group inclusion. They want to join the national community; they want to be members with equal standing, patriotic Americans. The left should always support them, even if we have goals beyond membership itself (and, some of us, worries about patriotism).
Think of the American political community as an enclosed space whose original inhabitants were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Over several centuries, this space has been invaded, first by Irish Catholics, then by Slavic and Italian Catholics, Jews, women, industrial workers, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, gay Americans, and Muslims—the list is long. This is the American story, and it isn’t over, first because many of the invaders have not yet succeeded in winning equal membership and, second, because there will be, there needs to be, further invasions in response to new exclusions. The new exclusions are crucial to understanding American politics today.
I want to begin, though, with the political battles of the last four or five decades, the ones we know best. Each of the recent movements for inclusion—civil rights, feminism, gay rights—has been partially successful. Racism and gender biases of different sorts survive in strength in the United States, and in these last months we have watched the appearance of new, and the reappearance of old, bigotries: hatred for Muslims and now, again, for Jews. Still, we have to recognize that there is today a stronger black middle class than has ever existed in the United States; and that women are a larger presence in the professions, in corporate management, and in politics, than they have ever been; and that gay marriage is positively popular among most Americans. These are victories, however incomplete, and they required a lot of hard political work.
So why isn’t America a more egalitarian society than it was before all this political work? We have had a series of sectional victories, and we have watched overall inequality grow. One common explanation is that group aggrandizement—black nationalism and radical feminism are the usual examples—has alienated large numbers of Americans, principally white and religious Americans, and has thereby enabled right-wing victories. If this is a factor, I suspect that it’s a minor one, since the great majority of blacks and women fighting for equal membership have appealed, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to insider values and to the sacred texts of American history: the Declaration and the Constitution. Straightforward racism and sexism are probably better explanations: large numbers of Americans were hostile to inclusion even before these struggles began. But there are examples of alienating politics connected with those struggles that we need to talk about.
The achievement of black civil rights, for example, requires radical changes in law enforcement: an end to police racism and mass incarceration, a police force that reflects the population being policed, a rejection of militarization, improved training and fire discipline. These are critically important goals, but they don’t require or justify the politics of ACAB: all cops are bastards. Nor is it helpful to call the police “pigs.” That is a sure way to turn off many Americans who identify the police as their protectors—which, in fact, they often are.
Similarly, the struggle for gender equality requires a critique of the patriarchal family. That’s a critique that many Americans, including many American fathers, will support. Extend the critique to the family itself, identified as “normal” and therefore coercive, and we will lose most American fathers and mothers. With regard both to families and police, the key question is whether we mean our politics to be effective or just expressive. Are we working to build a majority or indulging our marginalization?
Some of the most marginalized individuals come from the thinking classes, intellectuals busy writing articles and developing theories. These theories are often radically sectarian, and from the standpoint of a pragmatic politics, frighteningly stupid. But they make an important point: not every excluded person, not every outsider, actually wants to join American society, given the injustices and corruptions of everyday life in the United States.
Many movement militants imagine joining as a kind of accommodation, an acceptance of things that should never be accepted. Focusing on the excluded group itself, raising consciousness, rewriting history, enhancing the “identity”—all this is sometimes taken to be an alternative to accommodation. In fact, consciousness raising and all the rest readily go along with the politics of inclusion and continue after its success. We shouldn’t think of inclusion as the surrender of our larger hopes, but rather as a new beginning in the fight against injustice and corruption. Because of the immediate benefits it brings to previously excluded men and women, and also because of the political opportunities it opens, getting in is worth the compromises it may require.
Inclusion is a value that comes before many other values. I know the old maxim: “First feed the face and then talk right and wrong.” But in a democracy, men and women have to be able to talk publicly about right and wrong, to organize and vote, before they can confront issues of redistribution and make sure that all the faces get fed. Or, better, the achievement of civil rights is itself a redistribution of political power, and that’s what makes further redistributions possible. Equal citizenship, to put it simply, comes before socialism and all the other equalities.
Come back to the question: Why has inequality grown at the same time as blacks, women, and gay Americans have won political victories? The victories are radically incomplete; still, they should have had more of an impact on American hierarchies. The reason they haven’t had the impact we hoped for has to do with the character of capitalism today—finance capitalism, sometimes called “late” capitalism, though I am afraid that’s too optimistic an adjective. Right now, the capitalists are winning the class struggle. Capitalism today is a model of success—for the capitalists, who have vastly increased their share of American wealth. And the price of this success for a very large number of Americans is a life of extreme economic vulnerability. This is the new version of exclusion.
What has happened is the creation of a radically disorganized class of men and women who are being pushed out or pushed to the margins of American society. Unlike the industrial working class, these people aren’t clustered together, close to the means of production, and relatively easy to organize. They are fragmented, dispersed, most of them cut off from productive work, employed (or not) in the decentralized service economy. But they are together in their troubles. Close to 60 million Americans are working in jobs that pay less than $15 an hour; many of them live below the poverty line—and many more Americans are close to the edge, without the resources to cope with any sort of crisis: a serious illness, a layoff, the threat of foreclosure, a fire, or a hurricane. Blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate number of Americans in trouble; the largest demographic group is white; and more than half of the total are women. But we shouldn’t be counting. All these people, the “precariat,” as they are sometimes called, require a new politics of inclusion—and they require it without regard to their race or gender.
Capitalism as we now know it can easily accommodate small numbers of minority members and women in its hierarchical structures. Even a proportionate number of black professionals, say, or women managers doesn’t pose a threat. But the mass of the newly excluded must not be allowed to organize and defend themselves. Hence the contemporary politics of capitalism—as important as its economics—is aimed to destroy unions, to reduce the number of minority and poor Americans who can vote, and to cut back on all the public services that enable political activity, most especially on public education. It is the success of this politics that has stretched out the hierarchies, vastly increased the distance between the world of the few and the world of the many, and posed a growing threat to our democracy. Think of it: we were sure we had won the battle for the vote—women’s suffrage and black civil rights—and now we are on the defensive in one state after another where voting rights are under attack.
A significant number of the “many” voted for Donald Trump out of anger and resentment. It seems that most of the poorest Americans stuck with the Democrats, but they are the ones most likely to be stopped from voting by state laws. I suspect that it’s among people close to the edge—people working but without job security, frightened and angry—that Trump found many of his supporters in places like Johnstown (but watch out for the caricature: some of these people were supporters of Bernie). What should we think about the Trump voters? It is an old Marxist view that far-right populism is most strongly supported by the petty bourgeoisie and the lumpen proletariat. There is some truth in this effort to save the good name of the working class. But the language suggests a problematic view of our “others.”
One of the reasons for the alienation of many troubled Americans, especially white Americans, from any kind of left politics is their belief that they are now the people who are marginalized and degraded, that the “elites” who defend all the minorities hold them in contempt. It is hard to judge the importance of this belief—relative, say, to the declining standard of living of these same people. But the belief is uncomfortably true. I am going to give just one example. The causal role of contempt is less important than the simple fact that it exists. For leftists, now and always, contempt for those with whom we disagree is neither politically wise nor morally right.
Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli, published last year, has been heralded as a “brave and eloquent” critique of U.S. immigration policies. It has gotten a strong reception for its author’s “clear-eyed intelligence and marvelous literary imagination.” (The quotes are blurbs, but I know readers who have said similar things.) The book is, indeed, a persuasive critique of policies that obviously need criticism, even savage criticism. But listen to one passage—read it aloud and listen. Luiselli is commenting on a newspaper picture of Thelma and Don Christie of Tucson, Arizona, protesting against the arrival of undocumented immigrants.
I zoom in on their faces and wonder. What passed through the minds of Thelma and Don Christie when they prepared their protest signs? Did they pencil in “protest against illegal immigrants” on their calendars, right next to “mass” and just before “bingo”?
A friend read those sentences to me and said: “That’s why Hillary lost the election.” Well, not the only reason, but my friend had a point. We can’t build a democratic politics of solidarity with attitudes like that, and attitudes like that are fairly common among the intellectual elite and even among men and women who think of themselves as leftists.
Even more worrying is the fact that many of these militants are similarly contemptuous of men and women who have perfectly good liberal views on immigration, say, but don’t endorse every other left position—who voted for Hillary and maybe against Bernie in the primaries, who want to strengthen Obamacare but aren’t fully committed to single-payer. The belief that the people nearest to us are our greatest enemies has a long left history. But the politics that follows from this belief is not the politics we need right now.
The struggle for inclusion has always required coalition politics. Even women, who make up a majority of the population, still need allies in the fight for gender equality. The need of minorities is much greater. Outsiders need the help of insiders, and there always are insiders ready to help. In truth, many left activists are insiders—well-educated and economically comfortable. Since I am one of those, I want to be clear about our role. We act out of moral and political conviction, but the people we hope to organize often have different convictions. We are mostly secularists; many of them are religious. We are internationalists; they are mostly patriotic Americans. They have children in the army and the police; we mostly don’t. The first coalition that left politics requires is the coalition of leftists with anyone else—I mean anyone willing to join with us, even if only temporarily on this issue or that one. So we should fight in Democratic Party primaries, say, for strong left candidates, but if those candidates lose, we must coalesce with the winners—because there will be issues on which we and they can work together.
Leftists today aim to form (or help to form) a new multiracial political force composed of all the pieces of the precariat and focused on issues critical to its inclusion in American life and therefore to the future of American democracy: voting rights and public education; jobs, job security, and unionization; healthcare and welfare. But this political force won’t be constituted by a class “for itself,” that is, a class with a common history and consciousness. The precariat is highly diverse; its political struggle requires a coalition that won’t be easy to organize. We will have to bring together a multitude of organizations that have very different agendas and different histories: unions and churches and all the group-specific associations that emerged in the old politics of inclusion, from Black Lives Matter to NOW—all the groupings, across all the “identities,” from left to center. This will often be frustrating work, and some leftists want to avoid it—in favor of a “revolution” that is sure to leave many liberal Americans, many possible allies, far behind.
Ideological purity is the bane of left politics, the reason for the endless splits; the third, fourth, and fifth parties; the hostility toward people who ought to be allies. If we were a powerful political force about to seize power (that is, to win elections), it might make sense to insist that all our activists endorse a single, coherent political program. I believe that tolerance for diversity and disagreement would be necessary even then, but there is something to be said for discipline. But discipline today, when we are small and weak, is almost certain to be sectarian and self-defeating. We need every ally we can find.
And so do the Americans in trouble to whose well-being we are supposedly committed. The old left belief that small victories make radical politics more difficult (because people are a little better off) is an example of left-wing narcissism. Better off is good. We can’t ask the precariat to wait for our revolution if help is available sooner—not if we are really committed to their well-being. The old line about strange bedfellows is true—or, if the phrase suggests too intimate a connection, think of awkward and uncertain friends with whom we have to work for a while because our interests, though not our deepest convictions, coincide.
So long as we hold on to our convictions, that common work is the best way to resist the anti-democratic drift. Right now, it’s the only way.
Michael Walzer is an emeritus editor of Dissent.