The recent selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee has revived the media’s interest in what they love to call the white working class in the United States. Her husband, write commentators across the spectrum, is a union member. He is what we like to think of when we talk about the US working class. Well, besides the fact that Mr. Palin is one-quarter Yu’pik, his union membership is another aspect of his person that makes him a non-typical member of the US working class. In fact, not only is union membership at historical lows in the US, a good number of the workers joining unions these days are not white. Neither are they in jobs that pay well like those in the Alaskan energy industry (according to his tax records Todd Palin earned close to 93,000 in 2007 from his energy industry job and other earnings as a salmon fisherman.)
Back in the 1970s, the US Left was much stronger than it is today. This was true not only in the nation’s schools, but also in its workforce. Part of the reason for this was the intentional strategy of many Left formations to seek work in the labor force and organize among the workers. Several of my friends began working in factories making everything from bricks in Maryland to auto parts in Michigan. Others took jobs as bus drivers or laborers building Washington DC’s subway system. Some became pressmen and some went into the fields to work picking fruit and vegetables. A couple even ended up in West Virginia’s coal mines. It was the efforts of these individuals and their cadres that helped foment the upsurge in militant labor activity across the US in the early to mid-1970s. Wildcats in the mines and auto plants. Militancy among the pressmen during newspaper strikes in DC and elsewhere. Communists elected to union positions on the floor and in district offices.
Behind this leftist surge into the workforce were some very intense debates regarding the nature of the US working class. There were those groups that still considered this class to be composed of white males. Subsidiary to this perception was the unspoken assumption that these men, while understanding the issues of labor, were essentially reactionary when it came to issues of race, gender and culture. The ultimate media representation of this stereotype was the US television character Archie Bunker on the popular TV show All In the Family. It’s not that this perception came out of nowhere, as unions had historically excluded blacks and others from the construction and other trades.Perhaps foremost among leftist groups that perceived the US working class in this way were the Revolutionary Unions.
These affiliated regional organizations eventually whittled away dissenters and coalesced under one Revolutionary Union that evenually became the Revolutionary Communist Party (which was a different creature than the current RCP). Their perception of the working class as reactionary and culturally conservative led them to imitate what was in actuality the most reactionary part of the US working class. The wrongness of their analysis became apparent to many in the RU and elsewhere on the Left when the RU found themselves aligned with some of the most reactionary and racist elements of the movement against school busing in Boston.
Meanwhile, others on the Left saw a different trend in the US working class and focused their attention on that trend. Put simply, these leftists recognized that the US working class was changing from the enclave of white men to a workplace where people came from all parts of US society: blacks, immigrants, women and the young. Seeing this demographic change and realizing that it was probably a trend that would continue, many of these groups organized among the new workers. This naturally led to workplace divisions, but it also gave a new life to workplace organizing. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that the existence of certain unions owe their continued existence to the realization by the US Left of the 1970s that this new element of the US working class would not only respond to union organizing efforts, but would also eventually become the majority demographic in certain sectors of the labor force.
Which brings us back to the selection of Sarah Palin as the 2008 GOP VP nominee. The selection was quite obviously made with two elements of US society in mind–the socially conservative Christian fundamentalists that serve as the GOP’s voting base and the US working class. It is my contention that the latter element is a misnomer. It is not the US working class that the GOP is chasing with Palin’s nomination. It is the reactionary element of the white part of that working class.
The pretense by the GOP, the media and others in US society that this element of the working class is “the working class” is not only incorrect, it is (at the least) unconsciously nativist, if not outright racist. After all, the working class is composed of a very large percentage of women, blacks, Latinos and others with non-US national origins. Many, if not most, of this part of the working class do not share Sarah Palin’s (and the Christian conservative base she represents) apparent views on the war in Iraq, women’s rights, race, and even the ultimate goodness of the US capitalist system. Instead of reminding US voters that Palin is nothing more than a right wing Republican that believes that the Iraq war is a mission from God, which is exactly what George Bush is, the media present her to the US public as a real representative of the working class.
The Democrats seem to share that view. Yet, if they listened to their rank and file, the Democratic leadership would know better. Instead, they share with the media the essentially elitist view that the working class is mostly white and mostly reactionary. Consequently, they look for ways to pander to this element of the US voting public while ignoring the rest of us who work for somebody else to make a living, are not reactionary, and want nothing to do with Sarah Palin and her sidekicks John McCain and the US right wing.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org