Can The Left Win Back The White Working Class?

May Day 1912 at Union Square in New York City

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Folks on the left have no idea how the real world works. They think they can get something for nothing, always asking for a handout. The only thing that scares them more than statistics is a pair of work boots and a shovel. They’ll vote for whoever gives them the most free stuff, and they expect actual hard working Americans to pay for it. Some day, they’ll grow up and finally understand the importance of hard work. Until then, they need to get off the couch and go get a job.

Conservatives have been pushing a narrative aligning “hard working Americans” against the left since at least the 40s. This conservative ideology generally divides people into two groups: Capitalists and Socialists. Capitalists are people who believe in the American dream: they work hard, take responsibility for their own actions, and improve their communities through the pursuit of wealth. Tradespeople, legal immigrants, small business owners, and CEOs are in this sense merely different points along the same spectrum of hard work and success. The rags to riches narrative suggests that all of those roles are in fact inhabited by the same person at different times, given that they work hard enough and take the right risks.

In contrast, Socialists feel entitled to the hard work of other people and blame others for their problems. Bureaucrats and intellectuals believe that society is broken and only they are intelligent enough to solve it. Hubristically, they imagine that everyday people are incapable of running their own lives and need a guiding and benevolent hand to make the right decisions. Only through acquiring more power for themselves can they solve society’s ills. The welfare programs built by these de-gooders degrade the moral fiber of society and create a caste of lazy and dependent people waiting for a handout. Undocumented immigrants take jobs and public resources from hardworking Americans while “cheating” legal immigrants out of opportunities to enter the United States through the proper channels. In general, this class of people is characterized as having an almost parasitic relationship with Capitalists, only able to exist because of the hard work and genius of the productive class.

As an effete academic with a graduate degree in an overspecialized field, I understand why somebody who works for a living might resent me for complaining about being oppressed by the Capitalist system. My friend who regularly works fifteen hour shifts and still worries about making rent payments, not so much. It seems odd on the face of it that so many people who believe in the nobility of work and despise the idea of money they earn being funneled to people who don’t have to work for it seem to prostrate themselves before the billionaire class while deriding intellectual and creative work. Laborers, tradespeople, and the rural poor should be the bread and butter of the leftist movement, yet in the United States they are stereotyped as a broadly conservative demographic. As I mentioned in a previous article, recent Republican victories, including the election of Trump, have been marked by an exodus of working class whites from the Democratic Party. While I would not consider the core of the Democratic Party to be especially leftist, Trump’s efforts to paint Joe Biden as a “radical leftist” suggest that there is a great deal of reluctance to embrace left-wing ideology among his base.

There are a number of reasons for this, but much of it in my opinion boils down to publicity and outreach. A lot of this can be blamed on right-wing propaganda. The American Dream mythos implies that the rich deserve their wealth and working class people remain poor due to their individual personal failings. It also implies that billionaires uniquely hold the genius and work ethic to produce value equivalent to what an average American could only produce given tens of thousands of years. This is to say nothing of the over one billion workers in other countries who scrape by on about a dollar a day. A more reasonable view espoused by thinkers like Stephen Pinker is that the system we have now has facilitated more improvement in the lives of human beings than any other system that has ever existed. Right wing ideologues often boil this down into a simple dichotomy: either we maintain the system as it is, warts and all, or we implement a failed leftist ideology that leads to decline and destitution.

On the other side of things, there seems to be an apprehension widely held by white workers with no university education that they are being left behind. As we have seen over the past four years, much of this sentiment is wrapped up in feelings of racism, entitlement, and at times an almost borderline persecution complex. However, the idea that this is primarily due to an irredeemable “basket of deplorables” misses the mark in my opinion. The idea that control is being taken away from the people and vested in a small handful of elites who administer the national agenda is not in the least unfounded, and the tendency to pin those elites as left-wing intellectuals is the result of years of orchestrated propaganda and lingering trauma from the Red Scare. Even racially based sentiments are often rooted in legitimate economic concerns. As expert on the Klan Daryl Davis explains, white supremacist groups take advantage of economically frustrated workers by attributing their alienation to outside groups like immigrants and ethnic minorities.

The antidote to this, in my view, is simple. We need to provide the white working class with an alternative narrative to latch onto. This does not take that much effort or adaptation on the left’s part in my view: much of the work is self evident or has already been done. The term redneck itself possibly originates with West Virginia coal miners who fought an intense labor battle against corporations and the government for the right to unionize as well as equal pay for black workers. West Virginia also happens to be where Trump won by over a 40 point margin in 2016, the highest in any state besides Wyoming. That same year, Bernie Sanders won every county in the state’s Democratic primary. The effect of these so called Sanders-Trump voters on the election are highly controversial, but I believe they hint at the potential for progressive and left-wing policies to catch hold in traditionally conservative working class communities.

Take a policy like the Green New Deal, for instance. Traditionally, the environment is a sticking point for workers who have already lost their jobs working in the fossil fuel industry. Republicans claim that the energy transition would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. The details of the proposal are not exact, but the creation of ten million jobs is one aspect that Democrats would do better to emphasize in my view. The mobilization of workers required to deal with this crisis would be the greatest since World War 2, which has traditionally been linked with the end of the Great Depression. The costs of this proposal are steep, but the economic burden of climate change is bound to be immense, and will hit struggling counties the hardest. Two million homes are predicted to be underwater by 2100, and the cost to the US economy is projected to be in the trillions annually.

A slew of historic hurricanes and record setting wildfires should be a stunning reminder of the most tangible costs of climate change, but the impact on health, not including the increased prevalence of disease, has already begun to cost our economy many times more than policies like free college that have been considered by many to be too exorbitant to be worth considering. Ironically, deep red states in the lower Midwest and South may be hit the hardest. Top priorities for Republicans like immigration and national security are also at risk. The Syrian Refugee Crisis was in part triggered by a decrease in available irrigation water, which led to a mass exodus from rural areas to major cities. The contribution climate change had on the Syrian Civil War is controversial, but water stress remains inextricably tied to climate change, conflict, and migration. Water is bound to become a progressively critical factor in future conflicts. Regarding the southern border, droughts and extreme weather events force families in Central America to choose between starvation and migration, leading to a mass exodus to the United States. Financial stress caused by climate change may even lead to an increase in recruitment by terrorist groups, as is believed to have been the case with ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Without getting sidetracked too much by global warming, the point of the example is to demonstrate how concerns felt by the white working class, even when framed in a conservative lens, can be addressed with policies already being proposed by progressives. Much of this messaging is already there, but is not being emphasized enough, nor is it being marketed effectively. The idea that resources are so limited in the greatest nation on the planet that exploited laborers from another country looking for work are enough to deplete the livelihoods of entire communities, while ultra-wealthy robber barons worth hundreds of billions are the natural consequence of a prosperous society, is patently ridiculous. Unfortunately, this ridiculousness is very well marketed, and the peddlers of the ideology know how to infiltrate the communities they need to spread it effectively.

It may be fruitful for the left to focus on policies aimed at specific blocs of workers who are currently affiliated with the right. For example, my hardworking friend I briefly mentioned earlier has a few cousins who work as welders. These cousins are constantly talking about stuff they heard on Fox News, are huge fans of Trump, and make a point to sneer at college educated “elites.” Anti-intellectualism is cultivated by right wing ideologues as a form of pro-labor posturing which is actually anti-union and pro-corporation. Thespian and phony blue-collar icon Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame may advocate for lowering taxes on the wealthy and gutting worker safety, but he also invests money in scholarships for skilled workers and runs a “national PR campaign for skilled labor.”

This is a platform the left could easily steal. Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs improve graduation rates by providing disengaged students with an opportunity to learn subjects that are more relevant or interesting to them. Current programs focus on providing students with an accessible way to gain valuable skills, connect with employment opportunities, transition to higher learning, and become more engaged with their education. These programs disproportionately benefit economically disadvantaged and minority students, leading to higher levels of economic mobility and better outcomes for the most vulnerable. Reversing the decline of these programs and investing in technical education in disadvantaged areas could go a long way in expanding support for the working class while bringing forth the next generation of essential workers.

The success of Donald Trump and other charlatans in my opinion demonstrates that American workers are desperate to have politicians listen to them and address their needs. This should be a no brainer for progressives and the left. Elevating the working class and giving them a sense of agency and control over their own destinies is fundamental to establishing a more egalitarian society. This does not need to be at the cost of other goals. In fact, more often than not, solutions that work for white and rural workers also improve conditions for those living in urban centers and align with broader issues like protecting the environment. I truly believe that people have more in common than they realize, and when we work together we can find solutions that work for everyone. What’s necessary for us to succeed is that we listen to each other and learn to communicate our needs. Only then can we become a cohesive whole and solve the problems that affect us all.

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

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