Democrats Need More Than the Working Class

Democrats Need More Than the Working Class

To win meaningful gains for working people, Democrats first need to win elections with the coalition they have.

Top Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stage a rally for health care on Capitol Hill, June 21 (Edward Kimmel / Flickr)

[contentblock id=subscribe-summer-2017]

This is a critical moment for leftists—and for our fellow Americans. With Donald Trump in the White House and right-wing Republicans in control of Congress and a majority of the states, we have to build a broad coalition that can defend major progressive policies enacted over the past century, many of which are in peril. But we also must keep building a movement that goes beyond that difficult but necessary task to advance the vision of a society truly fit for us and our children to live in.

Unfortunately, Gabriel Winant’s sharply argued piece does not help us figure out how to act either now or in the near future. He makes a critique of the Democratic Party based on false premises and seeks political salvation from a “new working class” that neither recognizes itself as such nor, sadly, is either ready or able to take the lead in renewing “the struggle for our democracy” that Winant assigns to it.

The Democratic Party is surely far from the fighting, social-democratic force we would like it to be. But Winant’s description of its performance in recent years neglects the progressive achievements its elected leaders have made and shows little understanding of why they failed to accomplish more. The Obama administration was “uninterested” in “delivering for working-class people”? What class then do most of those 20 million people who got covered by the ACA belong to—thanks to a bill financed largely by taxes on the rich? Were middle-class professionals the intended beneficiaries of the mandatory overtime pay rule that a federal court unfortunately blocked just two weeks after the 2016 election? Did “center-left mandarins” appoint the most pro-labor members of the NLRB in decades who, among other things, opened the way for graduate students like Winant to form unions?

Winant seems to believe that Jon Ossoff failed to win his bid for Congress and Donald Trump got elected president because Democrats committed themselves to the “principle of neoliberal governance.” But if that’s true, why did Bill Clinton, whose politics were decidedly more to the right than the platform on which his wife ran last year, twice sweep the same midwestern states in the 1990s that Hillary lost? Why did both he and Michael Dukakis, in 1988, easily carry West Virginia—which Donald Trump won by more than thirty points? Back then, the United Mine Workers had more than 100,000 members in the state. The UMW now has less than a fifth that number, some of whom are retirees.  Miners and their families knew they would fare better under Dukakis and Bill Clinton, whatever their flaws, than under any Republican.

Moreover, the idea that Ossoff would have carried the upscale sixth district of Georgia by wooing the workers with a Sanders-like appeal fails to grasp how few working-class voters of any race actually live there. Why would doctors and accountants who already have decent insurance have flocked to a candidate who promised to raise their taxes to pay for single-payer coverage for people who live in poorer areas? Ossoff got almost exactly the same percentage of votes in the second round as he did in the first—and the turnout in the race set a record for open-seat contests. Perhaps Ossoff lost mainly because the race got nationalized, and a lot more Republicans live there. After all, Tom Price, now the despicable secretary of Health and Human Services, won seven consecutive landslide victories in that district.

The Democrats, like any political party in a competitive parliamentary system, must operate in a world in which they are just one powerful player. They did not create the global capitalist order, although presidents like Clinton and Obama certainly could have spoken more about the damage that order does to the economic well-being of ordinary Americans and taken more steps to mitigate it. But to make any changes, they had to win elections with the coalition they had.

Increasingly, Democrats—like their counterparts in Europe—depend on what Todd Gitlin has termed a “dumbbell” coalition: well-off, well-educated professionals on one end and much poorer African-American and Latinos on the other. That is enough to score secure wins on the West Coast and the Northeast yet not anywhere else. But under Jeremy Corbyn, the UK’s Labour Party has a similar coalition—which is how, in the recent election, it carried Kensington, the wealthiest district in Britain, as well as immigrant neighborhoods all over the country but still didn’t come close to winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

However, the way to recreate a majority party is not to abandon a key part of your base. And it’s no coincidence that the main organizers of and participants in the “resistance” have come from the same social group as do Obama and Ossoff—and Winant and me. I saw very few union banners at the huge women’s march in Washington, D.C. on January 21 and none at the smaller but still impressive climate march a few months later.

Winant’s prediction of a future working-class insurgency is lovely to read but lacks an appreciation of how such insurgencies emerged in the past. They depended on what Marx called a condition of “socialized labor”—people sharing the same conditions and the same kind of employers—and having the confidence that, through mass action, they could improve their lot. Public workers are socialized today, and many still belong to unions. But that is not true of those who endure the precarious realities of work for a welter of small and medium-sized firms along a global supply chain.

What’s more, the decline of private-sector unions has left most working people without an institution run by people they know and trust to educate them about political issues and mobilize them to fight for their interests. Like Winant, I look forward to a day when working people will again forge a movement large and powerful enough to shake the political system. But, like anything else in history, that movement will not be dreamed into existence by left intellectuals like us. Perhaps more historians should shut their laptops and abandon their lecture halls to become organizers in the meatpacking towns of Nebraska and the massive supply depots outside metropolitan areas where that “new working class” can be found.

For now, it’s crucial that leftists not spend their energy attacking mainstream Democrats, either present or past, as hopeless “neoliberal” sellouts. It is hard enough to defeat the odious plans that Trump and the Republican Congress want to impose on the nation. If we are engaged in a furious internal battle, it may become impossible. Instead, we should emulate Keith Ellison and Bernie Sanders—who have played down their differences with the likes of Tom Perez and Chuck Schumer—and train our fire at the enemy without and not at vital, if not always reliable, Democratic allies.

When I teach history classes, I ask students to think about how social and political change happens. We analyze the balance of forces—parties, movements, institutions, wealth and other resources—arrayed on one side and the other. We realize it’s crucial to understand the consciousness of the people one wants to win over as well as those who already stand with you. One can’t change the status quo through sheer acts of will alone. Alas, a radical desire is about the only thing Winant has to offer. We have to believe that another world is possible. But we also have to do all we can to save our country now.

Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent.

Read Gabriel Winant’s original essay on the “new working class.” 

[contentblock id=subscribe-summer-2017]

Correction: The UK’s wealthiest constituency, where Labour won for the first time ever this year, is Kensington, not Chelsea as this article originally stated. The text has been amended accordingly.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: