Can Class Struggle and Identity Politics Be Reconciled?

Photo by Harrie van Veen | CC BY 2.0

American “progressives” are divided over the politics of class and identity – and this conundrum will likely go unresolved in time for the 2018 mid-term elections, let alone 2020.

Americans live their lives at the junction where class and identity cross.  “Identity” is generally recognized as political action based on a distinct social category, whether involving race, gender, religion, sexuality, disability, nationality or similar factors.  “Class” usually involves economic factors, including wealth, income, jobs, health-care and inequality.

The promise of postwar prosperity was known as the “American Dream,” a reward for all the hardship Americans endured during the preceding quarter century.  It signaled a new America, one defined by not only the most powerful military and economic force in the world but a nation celebrating the rewards of middle-class life being extended to all its people.  It represented an historical moment when the tensions between class and identity could be reconciled.

The 2016 presidential campaign made clear that the politics of the “establishment” Democrats don’t address the problems Americans face. The politics of mainstream Democrats – e.g., the Clintons, Chuck (make-a-deal) Schumer and Nancy (keep-it-civil) Pelosi – simply won’t work in the age of Trump, an age in which the most reactionary, racist and the 1 percent rule.

Globalization and deepening inequality are reconfiguring what it means to an American. Current politics is fragmenting.  The Democratic Party seems in disarray; local radicals — embracing Bernie Sander economics (Occupy), Black Lives Matter, radical environmentalism, #MeToo and #NeverAgain politics — are challenging mainstream, establishment Clinton (Hillary and Bill) forces.  Sadly, third parties (e.g., Working Families, Greens) remain a marginal force, but do promote public debate and policies that push the established political duopoly.

Something is brewing, at once a concept and a movement, not unlike the struggles of old.  Today’s radicals, like those of the past, seek to fashion new forms of resistance, challenges appropriate for this time and place, but informed by the long legacy of progressive struggle of the past.  They seek to embolden conventional forms of resistance, proclaiming the new proletariat.  The great challenge they/we face is profound: can the demands of class warfare and identity politics be reconciled into a common political program that speaks to the vast majority of Americans?


The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, marks the moment when American politics shifted from being anchored in class or economic concerns (a legacy of the Great Depression and WW-II) to one grounded in extending personal rights to more Americans and to cover more aspects of private life.  Over the subsequent six decades, Brown was followed by a series of “liberal” decisions – e.g., Roe v Wade (1973) to Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) — and “conservative” ones — e.g., District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) – that profoundly expanded individual rights, thus changing the nation’s social order.

The Brown decision fueled a powerful – and often violent — reaction, a reaction that culminated in Donald Trump’s presidency.  Often unacknowledged, the Republicans pioneered the art of identity politics and have, for the last half-century, exploited it masterfully.  Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign against Lyndon Johnson marked the moment when staunch insurgent conservatives sought to take over the Republican Party; a half-century later, they have.

Johnson’s support for civil rights legitimized Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy,” realigning the nation’s political landscape along race and geographic lines.  The Republicans first great accomplishment was shifting white southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party; they followed by playing the same race-identity card in other parts of the country, championing state’s rights and the sufferings of the “silent majority.”

As Republicans played the white-race card and exploited the suffering of the silent major, they celebrated corporate American and the super-rich, ultimately represented by Trump.  Ronald Reagan led the charge by white workers against their unions, cultivating the fiction that they had more in common with their bosses than they did with their fellow workers, white and black; in the era of the American Dream and Brown, bosses earned 20 times that of the average worker, today they earn 271 times more.

Many moderate and conservative Republicans believe that the “free market” will create new generations of aristocrats, those not (necessarily) born of wealth but who create it out their own abilities, whether a Rockefeller, a Gates or a Trump.  Never considered are the roles of business regulations, the tax structure, effective lobbyists, outright corruption and zillions of dollars in subsidies (government rip-offs) that guarantee the tyranny of the super-rich, the 1 percent.  Conservative political ideology reconciles this contradiction in the belief that the achievements of the ruling class give voyeuristic meaning to the lives of ordinary working people.

Since the days of FDR, Democrats have been the more humane, “accomodationist,” faction within the two-party political system.  This continued through the presidencies of Truman, Kennedy-Johnson and Carter.  Saxophone-playing minstrel Bill Clinton abandoned the white working class – and economic issues in general — for a trickle-down crapshoot, further jettisoning class as a social, political issue.  In the wake of the 2007-2009 fiscal crisis, Barack Obama, a calculating accomodationist and a staunch supporter of corporate American, sought – with Congressional Democrats — to moderate capitalism’s worst tendency through small gains in health care and bank regulation.  Hillary Clinton could no longer maintain the accomodationist’s fiction.

The belief in the American Dream was grounded in two assumptions.  First, that the U.S. is a democracy and the rights of citizens (including voting) were Constitutionally guaranteed to all Americans. Second, government — and especially the federal government — served as the (relatively) neutral arbiter between politics (i.e., democracy) and the marketplace (i.e., capitalism).  This was a deal with the devil; and now, a half-century later, the devil is winning.


Trump was elected president by overcoming the conflicting – and apparently irreconcilable — political tension between class concerns and identity issues.  Following decades of Republican fiction, white Americans believed that the 1 percent, the old “ruling class,” would protect their whited-skin-privilege and ensure them – and their children – a better tomorrow.  It is a powerful myth, one that has been buoyed by a half-century of relative prosperity and proven true for a unprecedented number of Americans.  Those days seem to be coming to an end.

Five years ago, Pew Research reported on a study by Emmanuel Saez, an UC-Berkeley economist, analyzing how U.S. income inequality has evolved since 1928.  As Pew explained:

In 1928, the top 1% of families received 23.9% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 50.7%. But the Depression and World War II dramatically reshaped the nation’s income distribution: By 1944 the top 1%’s share was down to 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%, levels that would remain more or less constant for the next three decades.

But starting in the mid- to late 1970s, the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall. The top 1% took heavy hits from the dot-com crash and the Great Recession but recovered fairly quickly: Saez’s preliminary estimates for 2012 (which will be updated next month) have that group receiving nearly 22.5% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share is below 50% for the first time ever (49.6%, to be precise).

Since the ‘70s, income growth stalled for the vast majority of working Americans, “public” social investment was mortgaged to the highest bidder and the 1 percent walked away with more and more of the social-wealth pie.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s once-upon-a-time ideological guru, noted, “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.”  He added, “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”  Trump spent his campaign and first year in office exploiting identity politics, convincing his electoral base that he is “making America great again” – and, sadly, they believe him!

The apparent irreconcilable tensions between identity and class may be realigning due to forces that Americans have little control over.  New forces are at play, including globalization, flattening economic opportunities, deepening inequality and a corrupt political system where politicians are bought-and-sold like used weapons at a gun show.  They are coming to increasingly define social life in much of what is considered the “first world,” the postmodern industrialized West of the U.S., Europe, parts of Latin American, Asia and the South Pacific.  The old world order – and the mythic American way of life – is reconfiguring, fashioning a new capitalist world order.

Amidst this historic and global realignment, a growing segment of the American public — including sizable numbers of Trump supporters — are feeling distressed, victims of a system they have little influence or control over.  In the face of the rise of the “gig economy,” of ceaseless automation, use of robots and artificial intelligent (AI) systems to further rationalize low-wage jobs, the American Dream seems so yesterday.

In Trump, white voters found someone who – at least at rallies — championed their only surviving attribute, white skin privilege.  The new tax law he championed, as it plays out over time, will only further immiserate them.  What happens if the U.S. economy hits a speed bump or worse, similar to the “great recession” of 2007-09, and Americans face a really big squeeze?

In everyday real life, American live out the duality of class and identity, of how they survive and who they are.  There is a line in all social contestations where/when identity and class cross each other.  Pick your poison: when does race cross income disparities?; when does gender determine health inequity?; when does drug addiction not embody social despair?

American “progressive,” especially at the rump-end of the Democratic machine, will continue to flounder, stumbling to until they can fashion a program that overcomes the apparently irreconcilability tensions between class and identity.  Today’s advanced capitalism seems poised to foster its negation, the new proletariat, that overcomes the apparent duality of class and identity.


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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