One of the founding goals of new working-class studies was to counter the tendency for academic and political discussions to downplay class in favor of other aspects of identity and inequality. Most critical and public attention to cultural identity and social justice has organized around race, gender, and/or sexuality, and that has generated resentment from many white working-class people who feel that their struggles have been ignored. As a result, many have rejected social movements and political positions that they see as excluding them. And as we saw last year, some have been drawn to populist politics that emphasize economic struggle, including those that displace blame onto women, immigrants, and people of color.
As the resistance movement grows today in the US, will its organizers repeat the mistake of downplaying economic injustice? In the first few months of 2017, an energetic and multi-pronged resistance has emerged across the U.S. (and around the world), from inauguration day protests to the multiple versions of the Women’s March the next day, and continuing with spontaneous protests at airports after the travel ban was announced to a continuing round of marches and rallies focused on immigration, defending the Affordable Care Act, women’s rights. Over the next few months, more are planned, including a “Trump Taxes March” (April 15), a “March for Science” (April 22), the People’s Climate Change March (April 29), an “Immigrants’ March” (May 6), and the annual Pride march (June 11). During the February Congressional recess, we also saw many more local actions, especially at legislators’ town hall meetings, where senators and representatives were challenged by constituents to defend their support for Trump’s nominees and implored to preserve Obamacare, among other things.
With a few notable exceptions, however, the resistance has not (yet) emphasized class or economic justice. Yes, calls for Trump to release his tax returns reflect concerns about inequality and about social welfare for the wealthy, but the debate has been shaped just as much by a sense that Trump is a habitual liar who may have misrepresented his economic success and/or gamed the system in ways that reflect badly on his character. Similarly, responses to the travel ban could have been framed in economic terms, highlighting the low wages so many immigrants earn or their vulnerability to wage theft, but most of that discussion has emphasized religious diversity and the American tradition of welcoming outsiders. Many of the other important issues that have been raised since January — from opposition to sexism and xenophobia at the Women’s March to anxieties about whether Russia manipulated the election or consulted inappropriately with Trump’s transition team to the more generalized (but significant) concerns about whether and how a Trump/Republican administration could undermine democracy itself — reflect legitimate concerns that largely ignore economic justice.
The most significant attention to economic justice surfaced in response to Republican efforts to overturn Obamacare, though the bill went down less because of resistance from the left than due to internal debates among conservatives about whether the new bill went far enough in overturning the ACA. Still, debate over that bill, in Congress and in the media, drew attention to its inherent economic injustice, especially its redistribution of wealth by cutting support for poorer people and granting the wealthy a significant tax cut.
The failure of that bill also represents the first major rift between the President and Congressional Republicans. On most other issues, Republicans have seemed willing to go along with their president’s policies, despite hundreds of thousands of calls, postcards, and visits from constituents (for a good, but troubling discussion of the effectiveness of contacting your legislator as a tactic for resistance, see Kathryn Schulz’s recent essay in the New Yorker). At the same time, some state legislatures are actively pursuing anti-democratic policies to undermine the resistance, such as the law passed by Republicans in North Carolina to circumvent that state’s new Democratic governor’s power, or the spate of laws that have been proposed to curb protests.
Despite Republicans’ failure to overturn Obamacare, which had some on the left feeling at least a bit less anxious, the resistance faces a long, tough series of battles. We cannot rely on protests or contact-your-representative campaigns to stop the conservative tide. We need to elect enough Democrats to Congress in 2018 to block the Republican agenda. That will be difficult in any case, but it will be even harder if the Democrats don’t address economic inequality more directly.
Many assume — wrongly — that white working-class voters made a sudden sharp turn to the right last year, but that shift began decades ago, and white working-class voters have long favored the Republicans. Working-class voters’ doubts about the Democratic Party’s commitment to economic justice has a long history, dating back at least to Bill Clinton’s support for NAFTA, welfare reform, and the war on drugs. Under Obama, and in part because of his role as the nation’s first black president, the party has focused on building a coalition focused on social justice. We applaud efforts to build support for gay marriage and transgender rights, to end mass incarceration and police violence, and to support immigrants and refugees. These should be central to Democratic politics. But so should economic justice.
We can’t ignore the appeal of populist, economically-focused politics (on both the right and the left, both Trump and Sanders). As Frank Rich wrote recently in New York magazine, Democrats will probably never win support of the “silent majority” portion of the working class, people who moved to the right inspired by the Republicans’ southern strategy, which appealed to racial rather than class identities. But, as Jack Metzgar has explained, many white working-class voters could be drawn back to the left – maybe even enough to overcome Republican gerrymandering and undermining of voting rights.
Put simply, Democrats cannot win without more a forceful, strategic economic platform. As we have argued about the academic study of class, in political life we don’t have to choose between “diversity” and “labor” – even in reaching out to straight white men. The Party also needs to remember that economic anxieties are not limited to those who have been left behind by deindustrialization or the very partial recovery from the Great Recession. Many in the middle class share those anxieties, especially as they look to their children’s futures. After all, exit polls show that Trump won (albeit narrowly) in all of the higher income groups, from those earning $50,000 a year on up. Democrats need to more directly address the real economic losses and anxieties of both the working class and the large segments of the middle class who feel vulnerable in today’s economy.
To make that happen, we need a resistance movement that also puts class and economic injustice at the center. The precarity of many contemporary jobs, wage stagnation and declining benefits, workplace injuries and exploitation, and the undermining of laws protecting workers all deserve more attention. Two examples from this year’s resistance movements show what this might look like. February’s “A Day Without Immigrants” highlighted the centrality of immigrant workers in the US economy (though the strike also reminded us of their economic precarity). The People’s Climate March, coming up later this month, bills itself as focused on “climate, jobs, and justice.” As these efforts suggest, resistance can be classed.
Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor