A perennial theme of contemporary political punditry is whether and how the Democrats, having lost the votes of the “working class,” could conceivably regain it. Related to this is the debate about whether and how the Republican party, having acquired the votes of the “working class,” could conceivably become permanently the party of the “working class.”
There are, of course, problems with the way this issue is typically formulated, the most problematic being how the “working class” is currently often defined. As Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner have recently argued in “Seven Theses on American Politics” (New Left Review, 138, November December 2022, pp. 5-27), “it is commonplace in the US today to equate the ‘non-college-educated’ with the ‘working class’.” But education does not equal resource ownership. That is, “the most highly educated worker, if she or he lacks assets, must enter into a wage relationship” and so “subordinate themselves to capital in order to gain a livelihood.”
Thus, the American “working class,” understood by Riley and Brenner as “those who do not own assets and therefore must subsist on wage income, make up between 68 and 80 per cent of all US households. But this class is profoundly split by education level, sector of economic activity and ‘race’.” The authors identify “credentialling” and “race” as key concepts defining divisions within this class, in which what they call “whiteness” or “nativeness” are “the BA of the non-college-educated,” while the BA is the “whiteness” or nativeness” of the college educated.
Obviously, any seriously competitive political party must appeal to at least some “working class” voters. And it is increasingly obvious which party appeals more to the credentialled wing of the U.S. “working class” and which increasingly successfully appeals to its non-credentialled (i.e., non-college-educated) wing. “As mass organizations, the two parties are therefore anchored in different parts of the working class: the Republicans in its less educated faction, and Democrats among the credentialled.”
Riley and Brenner quote Thomas Piketty’s observation: “If the Democratic Party has become the party of the highly educated, while the less educated have fled to the Republicans, it must be because the latter group believes that the policies backed by the Democrats increasingly fail to express their aspirations.” (More and more, I think we are seeing evidence of this in the voting patterns of, for example, some Asian and Latino voters. As the Democratic party has increasingly come to reflect the priorities of its wealthier, college-educated professionals, this upscale party has become less and less appealing to others, who in the past might have been more reliably Democratic voters – e.g., Asian and Latino voters more and more of whom since 2018 have supported Republicans.)
A key component of Riley and Brenner’s analysis is the transforming effect ton electoral politics of our current “persistently low- or no-growth environment,” called “secular stagnation,” in which “parties can no longer operate on the basis of programmes for growth.” In the past, political parties were able to appeal to “working class” voters by providing actual material gains (e.g., the Great Society), but this was possible because of sustained economic growth. Traditional “social-democratic politics,” Riley and Brenner remind us, is premised “on the prospect of economic growth. But the politics of the present period does not hold out even the hope of growth. It is a politics of zero-sum redistribution, primarily between different groups of workers.” The result is the two different coalitions we now have, representing our current two different “working class” strata: “MAGA politics which seeks to redistribute income away from non-white and immigrant workers, and multicultural neoliberalism, which seeks to redistribute income toward the highly educated.”
I have in the past commented on one form of this transformation away from traditional social-democratic politics in places like Spain. Unable to offer a traditional “socialist” progressive economic program, such parties fall back on the cultural components which are part of their ideological inheritance, which in a place like Spain means anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism. Likewise, in the U.S. today each political party has fallen into its own distinctive form of grievance politics.
Those of us old enough to remember the post-war economic boom know that something other than the present impasse was once possible – and so, presumably, is still imaginable, although neither political party is presently capable of advocating, let alone achieving, it.
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