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The white working class is ready. Are you?
The 2016 Democratic primary gives us a way of assessing the potential for organizing among white workers. This may sound surprising since the corporate media created a narrative about how white workers supported Trump in the general election. But clear-eyed observers such as Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, Mike Davis, Bill Fletcher, Jeffrey St.Clair and Jake Johnston have countered that story.
It was the Democrats that abandoned the working class with Trump merely holding on to the Romney electorate as Clinton underperformed Obama in almost every demographic including white workers. The corporate story about white workers in the general election obscures a far more important story for activists and organizers. In order to reverse the drift toward war and corporate rule, we will have to launch bold and aggressive campaigns that replace the discredited corporate forms of identity politics and meritocratic thinking typical of the Democrats.
The Clinton machine tried to assemble an unconvincing coalition, bringing working people and urban professionals together to support a fundamentally corporate and imperial agenda. This project failed, and will fail again, but that failure can open the door to grassroots democracy. The Sanders campaign strongly suggests that victory is possible. If activists and dissident political movements can offer visionary leadership and mount determined organizing drives then millions of white workers will join the movements for social justice and economic democracy.
While an overall analysis of the primary or general election is beyond the scope of this article, we can learn a good bit by looking at “Greater Appalachia.” By this I mean the region of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to northern Alabama. I realize this is not the typical way of describing Appalachia.
Greater Appalachia is however appropriate for assessing the political potential of the white working class because this region is demographically far whiter than the rest of the country, solidly working class, and ethnically more Scots-Irish.
Southern Appalachia is a region of stubborn poverty. Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and New England, outside of the metropolitan areas, have, like the rest of the country, never recovered from the 2008 crisis. These areas are also distant from the urban political machines which have long histories of producing votes for machine politicians.
The electoral map of the 2016 Primary in the New York Times captures the general trends. From northern Alabama to Maine, it shows that Sanders was very competitive where he did not win outright. Where Clinton did win, it was by narrow margins. It is reasonable to assume that had the DNC not rigged the primary for Clinton or the media not presented Clinton as the “presumptive nominee” or elevated Trump with billions in free publicity, Sanders would have done far better.
Sanders voters in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York voted later in the primary season persisting in their dissent long after the narratives of Clinton’s “inevitably” were widely circulated by party elites and corporate media.
Clinton did worse and Sanders better in the Appalachian region of every state.
“The Democratic primary exhibited an even starker division between each state’s Appalachian and non-Appalachian regions. While Clinton won every state except West Virginia, she performed worse in every state’s Appalachian region and Sanders easily won Appalachian Kentucky and North Carolina. Sanders also came very close to victory in Appalachian Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia despite Clinton easily winning the remainders of those states. Clinton won by a comfortable margin in southern Appalachia outside of North Carolina, but still performed dramatically worse than in the rest of those states.”
If we move north, we see support for Sanders in the rural upland regions of Central Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.
While the definition of Appalachian Pennsylvania is unclear, the core of the majority white working class mountain region that follows the ridges of the Appalachian chain in central Pennsylvania voted for Sanders. In three of the central state mountain counties where Clinton does win – Fulton, Bedford and Union – the machine wins by razor thin majorities. “Sanders, for his part, performed strongly in the rural parts of the state, winning rural voters 50-48 and carrying Central Pennsylvania 50-49.”
In upstate New York, Sanders wins all but three counties. In the Catskills, just outside of suburban NYC, Sanders wins Sullivan Country 56.1 to 43.9, Ulster County 62.6 to 37.4 and Dutchess County 51.5 to 48.4.
As a general indication of class consciousness, in NY, “Clinton won voters who said Wall Street does more to help the economy, Sanders won among those who said it hurts the economy.”
It is interesting to note that many counties in New York flipped from voting for Obama in the 2008 general to Trump in 2016. Fourteen NY state counties flipped from voting for Obama twice to voting for Trump. Was this a sign of bigotry unleashed by Trump? Or was it the deep disappointment in Clinton, who, as former Senator from New York, had failed to keep her promise of jobs and economic development? Or both? We need more evidence.
Sanders went from strength to strength in New England, where he took three of four counties in Western Massachusetts and won all of Vermont, all of New Hampshire, and all of Maine.
The story is not just that Bernie would have won, although all the polls agree. The story is that win or lose, the Sanders campaign shows us what might be. And that assessment is positive enough to encourage anti-racist, union, community organizing, anti-war and environmental movement building among the white working class.
Young Workers of America Unite!
Young workers face the economic crisis head on. If the Sanders campaign is any measure, then young white workers, and young workers from all backgrounds, are fired up and ready for change.
Organizers, listen up!
+ Young women (ages 17-29) who participated in the Democratic Super Tuesday primaries favored Sanders 57% over Clinton 41%.
+ In Michigan, young voters went for 81% for Sanders. “Michigan mirrored early majority-white states where Sanders received extremely strong support from young people.”
+ In Pennsylvania, Sanders swept younger voters with a stunning 83-17. These numbers are so lopsided we can say with confidence that Sanders did well with young white workers.
+ Young Democrats Want More Liberal Policies and an Honest Nominee On Super Tuesday, 44% percent of young Democratic primary voters, compared to 28% Democratic voters of all ages, wanted to see more liberal policies rather than a continuation of Obama’s policies. White youth were the most likely to choose this answer….Finally, young Democratic primary voters were more likely (32%) than other age groups to name Income Inequality as the most important issue facing the nation, though “Jobs and Economy” continues to be their top priority (41%). [emphasis added]
“In the 20 states for which we have data, nearly 2 million young people have voted for Senator Sanders, almost three times more youth votes than any other candidate in either party….More youth have voted for Senator Sanders than for Clinton and Trump combined.”
Since I am using electoral data as a general indicator of what is possible, the white working class, the young white working class in particular, is ready for change.
The corporate order — in all of its extremism and excess — is in decline and disarray whether managed by an Obama, a Clinton or a Trump.
Corporate politics can only offer more of the same: perpetual war and global empire, mass incarceration and mass surveillance and the hollowing out of all of our once democratic institutions from elections, to unions, to the Bill of Rights, to education. The crazy corporate crusade to pillage the planet and impose inequality and austerity cannot be sustained.
Things fall apart; the extreme center cannot hold.
As the white working class — and the whole working class — becomes increasingly unmoored from its tethers, some will soar and some will crash. But as the great organizer Ella Baker said: “Give light and the people will find a way.”
1/ I make no pretense at offering a comprehensive analysis of the complex historical trends, cultural characteristics, and demographics that make up the either the traditional core of Appalachia, lying south of the Mason-Dixon line, or the northern upland regions of Pennsylvania, New York, and New England.
2/ The Daily Kos article cited above uses a broader definition of Appalachian Pennsylvania much more favorable to Clinton.
3/ Apologies to Yeats, The Second Coming