Summer Series #7: Democrats Need to Start Talking About Class

By Ben Cochran (Perturbed Leftist)

R. L. Stephens is a commentator and organizer who contributes to Viewpoint Magazine. In 2014, he was living in D.C., working at a low-wage job in a gentrifying neighborhood. As he says it, his two bosses were the kind of women who loved Hillary Clinton and only sold beef from grass-fed cows. His first day working, one of them asked him to take some money to the bank across the street, and delivered a stern warning not to take the money and run off. When the cash register was short one day, it became clear that his boss thought he stole. Stephens, the only black worker in the store, was also the only person not hired after the probationary period. He was the victim of thinly-veiled racism, and he had no recourse.

Out of a job, Stephens concluded that the theories of privilege and intersectionality he had learned at Carleton College were, in a very practical sense, useless to him. When his boss held all the power and he held none, what good did it do to check her privilege?

For Stephens, racism was material. It was about paying his rent and buying groceries. And while black people are far more likely than whites to live in poverty, poor people are more likely to be white. Thus, most of the people who can best understand Stephens’ sense of powerlessness are not black. This is important for those of us who believe that social change comes through solidarity based on shared struggle. Economic conditions are transformed when working people organize, grasp power as a collective body, and demand something different.

This past spring, at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ urging, Harvard’s president acknowledged the college’s complicity in the institution of slavery. No recompense followed, but the speech seemed an appropriate reaction to the calls for some kind of national conversation about race. A few months earlier, Harvard’s dining workers were fighting for higher wages (their average income was $31,000) from the institution with a $37 billion endowment. After a month-long hard-fought strike, the school capitulated. Many of the dining workers were black, and in a very real sense, more was gained for those workers through class struggle than by the president’s announcement.

In a similar way, identity politics focuses heavily on representation from elite institutions—it asks for concessions from power, because it has no power of its own. (As we’ve seen, it certainly can’t win elections). But no number of black CEOs will make a difference to the 27 percent of the black population that lives in poverty. Class politics, on the other hand, recognizes that the interests of workers are diametrically opposed to the interests of the owners of capital. Consequently, social transformation comes when workers mobilize, organize, and demand it—it comes from below.

The Democratic Party, and liberalism more broadly, needs to learn from the experiences of Stephens and Harvard’s dining workers. Our conversations are informed by social theories of privilege and intersectionality, and we deftly navigate the pitfalls of identity politics. But most references to working class white people in the past year asked the same nauseatingly repetitive questions about the election, as if my childhood friends in Ohio are some kind of new specimen for coastal political scientists. I have no new insights, but it’s worth pointing out, as many have before, that poor white people didn’t elect Donald Trump, because poor people don't vote.

What I’m suggesting is that the Democratic Party needs to relearn class politics, and the language of solidarity along class lines. As a natural consequence, this will shift the center-stage of leftism away from the coasts and toward middle-America, away from elite colleges and toward unions and technical schools and community organizations. (After all, only about 8 percent of Harvard students come from families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution, and 70 percent come from the top fifth. Harvard students understand class struggle from the winning side). Moreover, the Democratic Party should engage class politics for principled reasons, but also if it wants to win elections. When given a chance at a real leftist candidate, young people come out and vote. Consider Bernie’s enormous ongoing popularity, and the tremendous victory that Labour just earned in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn is a good example of what could revive leftism in America.

Our generation could be the first, since before Reagan, to return the Democratic Party to its class-based roots. We could begin to revive organized labor in America. I suggest to volunteer at a local union chapter, be friends with people from a different socioeconomic group, and choose to live in a mixed neighborhood. More immediately, even if you enjoy protesting his events, take Charles Murray’s bubble quiz.

Take Action Now: Workers' Rights, Poverty