Has the Left Abandoned the Working Class?

working class

Liberals and progressives frequently bemoan the absence of blue collar workers in their meetings and protests. It’s pretty hard to organize a movement large enough to take the streets with only 20% of the population. Estimating the size of the US working class is difficult. According to the Department of Labor, roughly 60% of Americans work for an hourly wage. Approximately 2/3  of them work for less than a minimum wage worker earned in 1968. Add roughly 20% to those figures, the true proportion of Americans who are either temporarily or permanently unemployed.

Traditionally the unemployed and working poor opt out of politics, though roughly half will vote every four years during presidential election years. Those who do vote mainly choose right wing fundamentalists who enact policies (such as cutting unemployment benefits, scrapping public services, and gutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) that are harmful to their economic interests,.

As Wilhelm Reich notes in his 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism, fascism and reactionary politics have always exerted a powerful attraction for men (and some women) from authoritarian working class families. Karl Rove and the spin doctors behind Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Fox News all know this and cleverly play on these sentiments. They are also masters at painting liberals and progressives as politically correct intellectuals whose main goal in life is to moralize and dictate lifestyle choices for low-income Americans.

The late Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, feels the organized left plays into the hand of right wing demagogues. Based on my own working class background, I agree. Because progressives fail to recognize the firmly entrenched US class divisions, they always end up on the wrong side of lifestyle campaigns. By jumping onto the anti-smoking, anti-obesity and anti-gun bandwagon, they only solidify their reputation as the politically correct lifestyle police.

The US Class Divide: the Real Culture War

The corporate media likes to depict the US as a profoundly polarized nation consisting of red and blue states. Red states are supposedly populated by highly religious, family-centered conservatives, and blue ones by social libertines who value community welfare over individual liberty. The concept, which total misrepresents the broad diversity of American society, is yet another example of mind-bending propaganda designed to keep us from uniting against our real enemy: the corporate state.

I agree with Bageant that the real cultural divide is between the college educated and the 80% who don’t attend college. Owing to limited social contact between these two groups, many educated Americans fail to appreciate the existence of discrete working class culture, with its own distinct values and language. Spin doctors like Karl Rove know all about working class culture. Why else would he remake George W Bush into a plain talking simpleton who refused to read books?

What many on the Left also fail to recognize is that it’s not just the police and slick ideological propaganda that keep the capitalists in power. These two forces are aided by an army of middle class “helping professionals” – teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, social workers, doctors, psychologists, etc – who play a crucial role in instructing the working class in appropriate and politically correct behavior.

This dynamic frequently gives blue collar Americans the sense that educated professionals are demeaning them – particularly when they moralize about smoking, junk food, changing lightbulbs and the evils of guns.

Courting the Working Class

Can progressives and liberals win the working class back from the New Right? I believe they can, but only if they’re genuine in their desire to do so.

They will definitely need a totally new approach to organizing that prioritizes the nitty gritty hardships faced by low income Americans. People struggling with joblessness, homelessness and/or starvation wages will find it really hard to get excited about climate change and electoral reform.

Moreover, low income and unemployed activists are going to have real time survival needs that more well-off activists will be forced to address. In the 1930s, coalitions that incorporated the unemployed formed welfare committees to help fellow activists with food, clothing, child care and even temporary accommodation.

Progressives will also need to be far more sensitive to the cultural differences associated with social class. In the early feminist movement we did this by conducting meetings in fishbowls. Low income and minority women began the meeting at the inside of the fishbowl, while more affluent educated women sat in the outer circle and observed and listened.

Finally progressives need to take a hard look at their association with “lifestyle” campaigns that low income workers view as personal freedom issues. They will also need to reexamine their dogmatic stance around non-violence. Non-violent resistance is an alien concept in most working class communities. This relates in part to authoritarian family life and, particularly in minority communities, constant exposure to police violence.

photo credit: Tymtoi via photopin cc

6 thoughts on “Has the Left Abandoned the Working Class?

  1. Yes, the Left has abandoned the working class. And if they’re in the poor working class category and many are joining THAT class daily, they are living paycheck to paycheck and are too afraid, cowed and tired to even attempt to do anything about their plight. Unions are all but non-existent whereas once they played a pivotal role in establishing better working conditions, collective bargaining and so forth and so on, but with union busting, that is a thing of the past. I just see no hope for reform in the U.S. I really don’t. This jobs situation that we see has been going downhill for far too long and now I think it’s just too late to do anything about it.

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing!


  2. Shelby, some mornings I, too, wake up profoundly disillusioned but I’m still not ready to capitulate. Human beings have found their way out of some pretty oppressive situations – take slavery for one. I also see some cracks forming in the corporate oligarchy. The domestic serfs have yet to benefit, but there are some fantastic things happening with all the left-leaning governments in Latin America.

    There are so many fires of democracy springing up all over the world at present the US military-intelligence complex can’t put them all out at once.


  3. It’s interesting you mentioned the gun prohibition movement. That is very much the domain of the SWPL Limousine Liberal set. It really doesn’t help that its primary backer is a billionaire with a 17 man security detail.


  4. Hi Doc. Well you know where I stand on this. Indeed the left abandoned the working man decades ago – although I view the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War as the major causes of the split. Too many workers did not support black equality, equal housing, voting rights, particularly in the South but in Northern cities as well. Nixon came along as well and eventually “Democrats for Reagan”. Union leaders and workers couldn’t stand the likes of the Panthers and Abbie Hoffman – and the educated New Left considered blue collar workers as low life ignorant trailer trash.

    Today the left shows little concern for workers who, because of economic struggles, place low priority on gay and women’s rights, environmental issues, oppressive drug laws etc.

    I found it interesting that college athletes at Northwestern University asked to be represented by a union to negotiate against a dictatorial N.C.A.A. Someone at school has been doing outside reading!!



  5. Good analysis, toritto. The only thing I would add is that the corporate elite has always promoted racism and racial segregation as a wedge to divide the working class. No one is born racist. And even early family training is transient so long as people of different ethnic backgrounds are allowed to freely intermingle.

    My own parents are prime examples of this. Owing to a profoundly racist ultraconservative family background, my parents were rabid racists until age 40. At that point they began to have contact with African American teachers in the inner city schools where they taught. What they discovered was that they had much more in common with these teachers (all from working class backgrounds) than they did with their lily white neighbors and even many members of their extended family.


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