Class Dealignment Is Real, And It's Spectacularly Bad

Class Dealignment Is Real, And It's Spectacularly Bad

It’s the most romantic political notion: A working class coalition putting aside their cultural and racial and religious differences to elect legislators who will ram through explicitly pro-worker policies and save us from the yawning darkness of creeping fascism in the United States.

I get the appeal, truly. The socialist idea of a united working class rising up against the plutocrats who have made life all but unbearable for most working Americans -- getting ever richer in the final stages of capitalism -- is one I want desperately to believe in. Our corporate masters and frothing oligarchs would finally, at long last, be forced to concede something to folks who trade their labor for a few bucks. Some semblance of societal balance would be restored, and a more secure working class would be far less likely to develop the brain worms necessary to burrow their way directly to the depths of fascist hell.

Daydreaming about a viable working class political movement in the US is enough to make my spine all tingly. It’s what drew me and millions of American millennials and zoomers to the revolutionary Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016, a brief, empowering moment when anything seemed possible, when we finally had an alternative to the corporate politics that had been spoon fed to us our entire lives. That there is no one to take up Bernie’s mantle could mean we’ll never again get an unapologetically pro-worker presidential candidate. Nevertheless, we persist.

(A quick aside: I escorted a group of middle school students to the U.S. Capitol in 2006, shortly after Sanders was elected to the Senate. He was still an unknown outside the nerdiest left-wing circles. We visited with Bernie and fellow Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who was incoherent and bumbling. Sanders, on the other hand, was razor sharp, encouraging the kids to read as much as they could and asking if they’d like to go to college for free. When the middle schoolers said yes, they would like free college, Sanders said, “Good. Tell your representatives to raise taxes.” The room fell silent. Bernie smirked.)

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My burning desire for a politics that serves the basic needs of working families does not, however, extend to the fanciful notion of a left-right working class coalition. Probably you know what I’m talking about if you, like me, are terminally online: The (usually) left-wing belief that workers on the left and right can join forces to take down the oligarchy and all its corruption and lies and endless greed.

Let us cast aside our many differences and engage in a class struggle against the ruthless masters who have built their business empires on our broken backs! May we ignore our various beliefs on the value of human beings and use our collective strength to break the ruling class’ death grip on political power in the US and abroad!

It’s a nice thought, really. It’s also dangerously naive and serves as much-needed fuel for Republican bad faith.

The Doom Feedback Loop of Class Dealignment

Class dealignment is rapidly changing American politics, warping political coalitions in the most unlikely ways. We now have working class people of color in Texas voting for Donald Trump and the ultra rich voting for whichever Democrat is teed up against Trump (or in 2024, Ron DeSantis). Class dealignment, in short, is poorer voters without a college degree gravitating toward the Republican Party and richer voters with a college degree cuddling up to the Democratic Party. While Democrats maintain a razor thin edge in the share of working-class voters, the 2020 election was a horrifying confirmation that Trump-style far-right politics can (and has) attracted support from workers who have for generations held their noses and voted for Democrats.

It is nothing short of a bone-rattling failure on the part of the Democratic Party that voters living on the edge of poverty are casting their votes for a casino magnate reality TV star and his deranged cast of destructive, oligarchical madmen and women.

Dealignment has created deeply uncomfortable bedfellows. On the left, you now have uber-wealthy, culturally liberal voters and socialists backing the same candidates. On the right, outright fascists who fawn over foreign dictators and advocate for ethnic cleansing here at home pretend to align with voters of color struggling daily to keep their heads above the tide of late-stage capitalism and the rot economy.

The former means true left-wing reformers dedicated to systemic change appear to be corporate zombies and the latter means Republican candidates get to talk a big game about supporting working class interests while slavishly serving any corporation that will throw them a few bucks. The Democratic Party drawing from a richer, more highly educated electorate creates a vicious cycle in which Democratic lawmakers will increasingly appeal to the wealthy and middle class – a phenomenon with which many elected Democrats are perfectly fine.

They might occasionally throw a bone to non-college educated voters but national Democrats seem increasingly comfortable with the Chuck Schumer formula: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” It’s an unstable and fragile formula rife with risk and designed in a lab to alienate frustrated working class voters across the US. While the current Democratic coalition might win an election here and there, it will be destroyed in the long run. It is unviable in the face of rising fascism.

Two Pennsylvania counties are stark examples of dealignment in presidential elections. Between the 2012 and 2020 elections, Erie County in western Pennsylvania, with a median household income of about $55,000, shifted from Democrat to Republican by 17 points. Meanwhile, Chester County outside of Philadelphia, with a median household income of around $110,000, shifted toward Democrats by 18 points.

Class dealignment is not a lose-lose situation. There is no breaking even here. It’s a massive loss for the American left and a long-term boon for the country’s right wing. It’s why J.D. Vance, a wealthy Ivy League elite who has never met an anti-worker policy he hasn’t wholeheartedly endorsed, can run for Senate as an avatar for the common worker. It’s why Trump can net endorsements from labor unions. It’s why New York Times columnists can write with a straight face that the GOP is slowly morphing into a workers' party when the Republican Party remains the planet’s fiercest and most dependable defender of capital, with the Democratic Party a close second.

Because Bill Gates and Lebron James and Madonna support Democratic presidential candidates, Vance gets to cosplay as a working class hero and Trump gets to fake solidarity with a disgruntled worker making minimum wage. It’s all so disgusting, and somehow makes perfect sense in our fractured culture.

Stick To Economics, If You Can (You Can’t)

Socialist publication Jacobin – which recently had a triple whopper of a piece about Saudi-backed LIV Golf as a workers' victory – teamed up with polling outfit YouGov to see how a working class political force could be forged in the US. The report, Commonsense Solidarity, explained in sometimes-excruciating detail how candidates can rally workers to a common cause in a political environment soaked with divisive “culture war” toxicity.

The report concluded that the “primary difficulty for progressive candidates arises not when they address group-specific issues, but rather when they make such issues the centerpiece of their campaign messaging.” The key to building a working class coalition, according to the study’s findings, is to hammer away at “bread and butter” economic issues while somehow avoiding intersecting issues like racial justice and LGBTQ rights.

That all sounds fine. But what should a progressive candidate do when faced with a question about their support for historically marginalized groups that would be trampled underfoot by a Republican candidate? Should this theoretical candidate simply change the subject, as Bernie Sanders has sometimes done in his White House bids? Should they refuse to answer questions about issues outside of so-called bread and butter, kitchen table issues?

As soon as this progressive candidate says anything in support of a trans person’s right to exist or reparations for black Americans or amnesty for immigrants or their support for abortion rights, the right-wing machine kicks into high gear and makes the race not about the kitchen table shit, but about one transgender athlete who swam with the girls.

This theoretical progressive can try like hell to steer the discourse back toward economic policies that would make life less miserable for working families and it wouldn’t matter. Any utterance about abortion or immigration or LGBTQ issues grabs the spotlight because these issues are easier to cover for media outlets and conservatives would do anything to obscure their desire to crush working class voters at every turn. That humans are emotional creatures that hardly ever act in self interest means the most emotionally charged issues – abortion, for one – overwhelm a so-called independent voter’s inclination to back the pro-worker candidate if that candidate is supportive of bodily autonomy.

The report urges progressive political candidates to distance themselves from “woke messaging,” which of course feeds into the right’s use of “woke” as a stand-in for a range of deeply insulting, racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs. Conservatives deriding the Super Bowl halftime show featuring Rihanna as “woke” tells you everything you need to know about what woke means to the right. The all-woman fighter jet flyover before the Super Bowl kicked off was “woke.” Any white person who supports the civil rights of black folks is "woke." You get the idea.

This Jacobin-YouGov report is a good (bad) example of the American left refusing to acknowledge the power of the right’s bad-faith approach to politics. Labeling racial justice candidates as “woke” is naive at best, pejorative at worst, and cedes rhetorical ground to right-wing media as it relentlessly attacks anti-racists as crazy, misguided, or hateful of white people. Anyone on the left using the term “woke” in any capacity is throwing kerosene on the far right’s bad faith fire that could one day consume us all.

Any leftist who labels racial justice politics as “woke” is probably susceptible to the laughable delusion of a left-right working class political movement. Such a movement is impossible unless someone gives up their principles, and I can tell you for certain that the right wing is not going to budge an inch on abortion or guns or LGTBQ rights (all of these are economic issues because every issue is an economic issue). Only if the left is willing to sell out its closely-held beliefs in human dignity is a left-right working class force possible.

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe there exists a leftist who passionately believes in the rights of working people and would support a ban on trans healthcare or access to abortion. Maybe there are Marxists who don’t give a shit about the horrifying maternal health outcomes for black and brown women. I would very much like to never meet such a person, and would certainly not want that person as an ally.

Turnout Will Not Save Us

I came of age in an era that featured an unshakable liberal belief that high turnout would always and forever favor Democratic candidates. Winning was only a matter of driving otherwise unengaged voters to the polls. Barack Obama’s sweep election in 2008 solidified the Turnout Thesis as a law of the universe. Obama’s soaring, vague rhetoric had driven non-voters to the polls in droves and he crushed John McCain without a sweat. Permanent Democratic majorities were only a matter of increasing turnout; nothing else mattered.

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Class dealignment during the Trump era has dropped a nuke on the Turnout Thesis. The so-called populist right’s appeal to working class folks has created a political environment in which high turnout can benefit Republicans slightly more than Democrats – an unthinkable turn before the GOP’s normies and their banal evil lost control to the party’s psychos.

Turnout is no longer the only thing. It turns out a widely appealing political message plays a part in how elections go. Everyone from Bernie to Hillary to John Kerry and John Edwards were wrong about this.

From the Jacobin-YouGov report:

Evidence suggests that it is unlikely that low-propensity voters fail to vote because they don’t see their progressive views reflected in the political platforms of mainstream Democratic candidates. While nonvoters in the sample did express positive views of candidates who included progressive policies among their key issues, their support for such policies was weaker than that expressed by voters. This suggests that if non-voters came into the electorate, they would be no more attracted to progressive candidates than current voters. In sum, turning working-class non-voters into voters is likely to help Democrats, but there is no obvious reason to think it will be particularly beneficial to progressive Democrats.

In this way, class dealignment has clarified our politics. Folks who usually – and rightfully, perhaps – dismiss electoral politics as a stupid little game played by nerds and monsters alike are not going to automatically vote for the Democrat if they engage with democracy. In 2020, we saw Latino communities in Texas support Trump in large numbers, with many of these voters coming out for the first time. The idea that massive turnout will save the republic must be dismissed, posthaste. If it was ever true, it is no longer.

The American working class has no political home and they know it. Alienated and let down by leaders of the Democratic Party for the past half century, working class voters are now turning to the only alternative: A deeply radicalized Republican Party hostile to representative democracy whose leaders are ready and willing to play the part of working class heroes, which, as someone once said, is something to be.

Republicans as stalwart defenders of working Americans is nothing short of end-stage bad faith politics.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.