BlackCommentator.com Apr 21, 2022 - Issue 907: Who Is Working-Class, and Why It Matters By Van Gosse, BC Guest Commentator

Throughout U.S. history, class has been bound up with other forms of oppression—so the disenfranchisement of Black men after Reconstruction decisively shifted class relations.

Many political analysts, including some on the Left, are positing a radically new configuration of class in the United States. Their argument, reduced to its essence, is that the traditional markers of class are no longer relevant, and now the great divide is between those who have graduated from college versus the rest. It is further argued that this new class structure is reshaping our political party system in dramatic ways: the Democrats are becoming the party of the educated, in addition to traditional constituencies among African Americans and single women. Conversely, the Republicans are becoming a party of the working class—defined as the non-college-educated—across traditional racial and ethnic lines (for a cogent example of this analysis, see Matt Karp’s “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age”).

I think this analysis is wrong in all respects. We need an analysis of how class functions in the U.S. that is based in our distinct history of stratification (and division) along ethno-racial lines. Beyond that, we need an accurate reading of the Democratic Party in particular, if we are to advance the struggle for a multiracial democracy against white nationalism.

The Democrats

Certainly, the bases of the two parties are in motion. As Karp points out, the Democrats have successfully invaded formerly Republican turf, pulling in large numbers of suburban white women. On the other hand, the numerical shift towards Republicans among rural whites in places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is jarring. But these large-scale electoral trends require a different kind of examination than many on the Left have provided: we should stop making or accepting flat pronouncements about “working-class” defection from the Democratic Party. There may be some, but it is an open question who is disaffected and why, and indeed how far back this alienation from the Party of the New Deal reaches.

The Democratic Party has never been a party of the working class, and suggesting it once was, presumably because for many decades after the New Deal it received a majority of votes cast by waged workers, is reductive in the extreme. At no point did the Democrats resemble a socialist, labor, or communist party in Europe or anywhere else, formations in which trade unions enjoyed a preponderance of power in party councils. From the 1930s through the present, powerful corporate interests have exercised a large, often decisive influence among Democrats, along with urban machines dominated by ethnic interests, and, until recently, white southerners of all classes. Certainly, the trade union apparatus mattered—they got out the vote–but any examination of party dynamics indicates their role was always contingent and subordinate.

In the post-1945 era, for instance, extractive industries based in Texas and Oklahoma were central, via Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of the former and Senator Robert E. Kerr of the latter, who, as head of the Finance Committee, controlled more pork than anyone else in Washington. More recently, since the 1990s, significant elements of the tech and finance sector have bankrolled the Clintons’ grand plan to move the party to the center-right, away from any alignment with organized labor. That the latter had been in free-fall since the 1970s is obviously relevant.

It is not enough, however, to assert that the Democrats have never been a “party of workers,” as Matt Karp describes them, let alone a party of the working class. We, as socialists, must refuse the insistence of professional pollsters, and the liberal media trailing after them, that “working class” is directly correlated to “non-college educated.” No Marxist I have read would make that assertion. For us, class is measured by one’s relation to the relations of production—what one does, and for whom, not the size of a paycheck, or educational credentials.

"We must refuse the insistence of professional pollsters, and the liberal media trailing after them, that ‘working class’ is directly correlated to ‘non-college educated."

The demographic pool of Americans without a bachelor’s degree includes millions of business-people (retail shop owners, contractors, farmers, home maintenance techs, computer programmers, and more) many of whom deploy capital to employ others. They are not “workers” at all, unless one succumbs to elitist tropes equating “working class” with trucker caps, Carhartts, and certain food or music tastes. This large stratum fits the historical definition of the petty bourgeoisie; indeed, throughout the advanced capitalist world, it has functioned as the social base for reactionary nationalism and nativist pseudo-populism. In the U.S., they flocked to the Second Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and then Huey Long’s Share the Wealth clubs and Father Charles Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice in the mid-1930s. Why would we let mainstream corporate Democrats and their acolytes in the press, who share little with us other than opposing Trump, define these people as “workers?” (To be clear, we should not concede the petty bourgeoisie to the Right—there are many small-business owners, technicians, professionals and tradespeople who agree with us!)

Equally important is the flipside to this deep misunderstanding that class correlates to educational credentialing. Right now, there are vast numbers of people with college degrees who are definitely working-class. All kinds of institutional employers, especially those in the “non-profit” sector like my college, require a B.A. degree for skilled clerical jobs. For that matter, does anyone want to insist that nurses, one of the most militantly class-conscious sectors of today’s proletariat, are somehow not “working-class” because they have at least one, often several, college degrees? And then there are the thousands of baristas, a visible precariat; we should scoff at the notion of separating them into two different classes because some finished college and some did not.

This commentary is also posted on ConvergenceMag.com

BC Guest Commentator Van Gosse is a Professor of History at Franklin & Marshall. After writing about the New Left “movement of movements” for some years, in 2021 he published The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War. He has been active in peace and solidarity work since the 1980s (CISPES, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice) and helped found Historians Against the War, now H-PAD, in 2003.

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