When I teach history classes, I often give students assignments that ask them to—as we say in the profession—“historicize” themselves. At a superficial level, it’s easy to absorb this fundamental insight of historical scholarship: that an individual’s ideology doesn’t come from inside them, but is an effect of time and place. But it’s much easier to understand how this was true of some stranger in the distant past than to accept it about yourself—that you’re a product of the social processes of your time, and your ideas are not crystals of pure rationality, but the residue of these processes.
Much of the indictment of mainstream journalists and politicians on the center-left boils down to this problem. The leaders of the Democratic Party and their loyalists seem to hear themselves as the sole voice of reason in an insane moment. They don’t grasp that they’re speaking a particular and provincial language—the institutional formalism and propriety of the professional middle class of the late twentieth century—and even less why that language enjoys less resonance now than in its 1990s heyday. The latest defeat—that of Jon Ossoff in the Georgia special election—illustrates this dynamic starkly: Democrats are sniffing for suburban votes where they can’t get a majority, while ignoring the people who might actually want to vote for them. The party appears committed to offering substantively vacuous defenses of formalism to an electorate whose dire needs have destroyed lingering faith in our residual institutional norms. Ossoff, who ran on a promise not to send impulsive tweets and studiously avoided actual policy discussions, embodies the problem: reasonability offered as the rationale for the Democrat, but no actual reasons. Conceding the election, the losing candidate delivered his speech in an imitation-Obama style. The principle of neoliberal governance—democratic politics as mere theater, markets as the real governors—became literal here: the Democrats banked their hopes on someone pretending to be a politician on the TV.
This dismal outcome—and, beneath it, the fantasy of grafting the Democratic Party onto an electoral base of affluent moderates in areas like Ossoff’s Atlanta suburbs—are a product of historical forgetting. Elite Democrats seem not to remember where they came from, or what it was like when working-class people actually turned out for them. Today’s Democratic leadership and its strategy are the offspring of a process of social transformation in the late twentieth century. Yet they seem to be blissfully unaware of this historical process, and thus unable to grasp that it has become a trap—much less why it has, or how to escape it.
The Democrats are ensnared in a dynamic that is wrecking center-left parties around the north Atlantic. Sometimes labeled Pasokification, after the pattern of collapse of the Greek socialist party PASOK, it was diagnosed by scholars on the left decades ago. As the political scientists Adam Przeworski and John Sprague explained in their 1986 book Paper Stones, social democratic parties, built on the assumption that the working class would grow steadily in size and power them to majority, instead were forced to face the unexpected stagnation and decline of their proletarian bases. The only route to future electoral majorities would be to broaden their appeal to encompass sections of the middle class, but this would require diluting the party program, demoralizing and demobilizing its working-class base. Key milestones in this process included Tony Blair’s ascent in Britain and the abandonment of Labour’s “Clause IV”—its commitment to “common ownership of the means of production”; Bill Clinton’s welfare reform; and the Hartz plan for labor market liberalization under the German Social Democrats. In the final reckoning, this process could lead these parties to be not only aloof from their old sources of support, but complicit in their social liquidation—certainly, this became true for the Democrats. The near-term victories they won occurred because the effects of their changed class allegiances had not fully sunk in, allowing them to temporarily have their cake and eat it too.
This was, of course, also the historical process that elevated the current crop of Democratic leaders to power. After bitter political struggles through the 1980s—between Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy, then between Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, and Jesse Jackson, and finally between Jackson and Michael Dukakis—the “new” Democrats won out, in the form of the Clinton administration. Where it had once been pro forma that every Democratic nominee launched his campaign in Detroit’s Cadillac Square, the party now focused its hopes on places like the Philadelphia suburbs, northern Virginia, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and metropolitan Tampa—the pockets of American social geography swelling with Democratic-aligned industries and professional-class voters.
But these voters have not realigned in numbers sufficient to compensate for the parallel demobilization of the working-class base on which Democrats once relied. This effect, already visible in the drop-off in Democratic performance from 2008 to 2012, proved dramatic by 2016. Eight years in power had revealed how uninterested the party now was in delivering for working-class people. Working-class savings were wiped out over the Obama years; the racial wealth gap grew; the costs of health care, child care, elder care, education, and housing spiraled; mass incarceration ground on; wages stagnated; union membership declined further. The disastrous result in 2016 needs no recapitulation. The New York Times, reporting from Milwaukee—today a synonym for racial segregation, police violence, and housing insecurity—quoted an African-American abstainer: “He said no president in his lifetime had done anything to improve the lives of black people, including Mr. Obama, whom he voted for twice. ‘It’s like I should have known this would happen. We’re worse off than before.’”
Yet, as we saw in Georgia, the Democrats can’t seem to back themselves away from this ledge. Why not?
When mainstream Democrats and center-left mandarins say “working class,” they seem to think of the same people Donald Trump thinks of. Chuck Schumer infamously discounted the party’s lost blue-collar votes in southwestern Pennsylvania next to those he imagined it would gain in the Philadelphia suburbs—apparently forgetting about the question of turnout in Philadelphia itself. In a recent piece in Slate, Yascha Mounk—director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change—wrote that the Democrats should focus on “states where appealing to the white working class is not as important as increasing turnout among minority groups and appealing to moderate voters in the suburbs.” Note the slippage: whatever program will appeal to the entity known as the “white working class” will not appeal to “minority groups,” who are joined together in this analysis with “moderate voters in the suburbs.” Has Mounk ever spoken to a working-class American outside of a customer transaction? It is difficult to imagine how the categories with which he operates could possibly have survived such an encounter. The American working class is, after all, less white than the rest of American society, and, by all survey evidence, has more left-wing political views—by dint of its composition by race and gender, as well as its class experiences.
The danger that the Democratic Party and elite liberalism now face is that they cannot conceive of the American working class as it actually is, insisting instead on addressing a specter from decades ago. The right-wing hard-hat, the eternal Reagan Democrat—such anachronistic images provide a way of not engaging with questions of class inequality. So long as these ghostly figures are what “working class” means, there can be no working-class force in political life, and the cycle of programmatic dilution and mass demobilization can continue, with increasingly horrifying consequences.
The issue is fundamentally a historical one—a problem in how we understand the developments in our own society over the last several decades. While Democrats have been pleading for the votes of suburban college graduates, a new working class has been in formation all the while. This social process, still largely unnoticed by everyone who is not living it, has yet to impinge significantly on our national political culture. This working class has not yet told its own story. It remains, to the professional middle class, a largely undiscovered country, a people with an ancient history but no recent one.
To be sure, there is always profound distortion interrupting the ability of the working class to represent itself, to be seen and to make itself heard in the moment. The cycle of creative destruction and the constantly shifting patchwork of the labor market render concepts of “work” and “workers” always out of date. Political high-water marks in the history of the working class leave residues that can last for decades, even longer. As the historian E.P. Thompson once pointed out, the Victorian discovery of the proletariat caused generations of subsequent socialists to conflate the specificities of nineteenth-century working-class life with the whole concept of class in general.
To imagine that we should look for “class” and see hard-hats mistakes a particular historical manifestation—the industrial working class—for a general category whose ranks are always changing. But while the idea of a new working class is not yet widely accepted, its distinguishing features are, on their own terms, familiar. We can reduce them down roughly to feminization, racial diversification, and increasing precarity: care work, immigrant work, low-wage work, and the gig economy. There’s also a host of interlinked forces shaping working-class life from outside the workplace: policing and punishment; housing insecurity; indebtedness; the costs of education; and the difficulties of caring for the young, the disabled, the sick, the addicted, and the old. A set of shared experiences coheres here, and a potential set of shared enemies: landlord, lender, bill collector, manager, cop. Racialized and gendered unevenness in exposure to these forces is real, but that portion of experience that is shared appears, quite clearly, to be growing year by year at the intensifying intersection points of race, gender, and class. This, the growing stock of common experience, is the process called “class formation.”
Neoliberalism destroyed the old working class, transforming the Democratic Party into its accomplice as it did so. It also reorganized working-class experience in profound ways. When I made some commentary along these lines on Twitter, I suggested that socialists would need to learn about new forms of grievance and frustration in place of the old touchstones, and suggested understaffing, needlesticks, and depression as examples of new grist for conflict. None of my Twitter followers, it turns out, had heard of needlesticks—accidental injury by sharps in hospitals and nursing homes—despite the fact that they’re one of the main occupational hazards in the largest sector of the labor market. Can one imagine never having heard of black lung?
The working class has dissolved and reformed many times in history, and will continue to do so, with new grievances and opportunities at each juncture. With each sequence in the cycle, we rediscover the material features of the newly reconstituted working-class world. This is the dynamic underlying the journalistic tradition going back to Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England; one thinks of Margaret Byington’s Homestead, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, Michael Harrington’s The Other America; the photos of Jacob Riis and Dorothea Lange. For the process of social recomposition happening in our time, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, written in reaction to Clintonian austerity, seems the best such chronicle we yet have.
Still, as E.P. Thompson would remind us, the working class ultimately delivers its own historical narrative. And while it’s commonplace on the left to assert that no revitalized class politics is possible without stronger unions, more strikes, greater workplace ferment, there’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between workplace struggles and political struggles. As Thompson’s classic book The Making of the English Working Class showed, the world’s first industrial proletariat announced its arrival not prior to, but through, political conflict. “The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time,” Thompson famously wrote. “It was present at its own making.”
The long socioeconomic process by which proletarians were driven from the land and gathered into mills, mines, and factories was not, on its own, what split British politics along class lines over the nineteenth century. Rather, it was through workers’ agitation for democracy in oligarchic England that they bred a popular radical politics and forced Westminster to respond. Rising political agitation—for free speech, for suffrage, and for a Jacobin revolution—created elite consciousness of the emerging proletariat. It was not prior to struggle, but through struggle, that the workers established that English society was organized along class lines, and that they, a class, were a real group who held things in common, not least their enemies. The existence of the working class was in this sense the product of the working-class movement, not the other way around.
Today’s new working class will not come into being and simply resuscitate the forms of organization and collective action inherited from the postwar AFL-CIO. We probably won’t wake up one day to find that SEIU has become an organ of mass popular radicalism. One way or another, workers will reinvent or transcend inherited organizational forms, or they will never make themselves heard at all. Nevertheless, what Thompson showed is how this process of emergence and invention always draws on existing repertoires of political practice, older habits of political culture, longstanding expectations of fairness and justice.
As the Trump administration prepares to shred the remnants of the safety net that it once promised to protect, we might see political rumbling in the sectors of the new working class bearing the immediate brunt: the people who care for the sick, the old, the young, and the poor. This rumbling may sound odd, or it may sound familiar—likely both at once. We may thus initially fail to recognize it for what it is: the only force that can end decades of retreat and renew the struggle for our democracy. The professional middle class would do well to—for once—be quiet and listen. It may even, with a little nudging, want to join in.
Gabriel Winant is a PhD candidate in history at Yale University.
Read Michael Kazin’s response, “Democrats Need More Than the Working Class.”
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