In his 2007 classic “Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War”—a book that, in the age of Donald Trump, is more relevant than ever—Joe Bageant makes an observation that cuts to the nub of the matter. America, he says, isn’t composed of some great middle class; it is an overwhelmingly working-class country. “If we define ‘working class’ simply as not having a college degree, then fully three-quarters [or at least two-thirds] of all Americans are working-class.” He continues:
“Class,” however, is defined not in terms of income or degrees but in terms of power. Especially regarding labor. If you define “working class” in terms of power—bosses who have it and workers who don’t—at least 60 percent of America is working class, and the true middle class—the journalists, professionals and semiprofessionals, people in the management class, etc.—are not more than one-third at best.
In fact, professionals, such as journalists and teachers, live increasingly precarious, disenfranchised lives, as revealed by the upsurge of teacher strikes in the last couple of years. Many professionals belong right next to truck drivers, medical technicians, retail workers, and the chronically unemployed and underemployed in the exploited, low-paid working class.
Among the Democratic candidates for president, there is one person who speaks for this vast, long-suffering working class, this beating heart of America: Bernie Sanders. Whether or not all his legislative goals are achievable in the short term, he is the one fighting most aggressively for the interests of workers. It is hard to argue, after all, that his proposals for “workplace democracy,” the cancellation of student debt, tuition-free higher education, a federal jobs guarantee, aggressive action to combat climate change, Medicare for All, and so on are against the interests of the large majority of Americans.
So what does it mean to say, as so many do, that he is unelectable?
One possible meaning is that most Americans are unaware of their true political interests. They might be swayed, say, by pundits’ or Republicans’ demonization of Sanders as a socialist—even though true socialism means popular control of the economy and abolition of the capitalist class, which Sanders hasn’t advocated. Disinformation campaigns like this (and there are many other examples) are crucial to convincing working-class Americans to vote against a candidate who has spent most of his life fighting for the working class.
Another possibility is that Democrats who support Sanders will convince themselves that in the general election he would never win, so voters in the primaries will choose someone supposedly more “electable” like Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden. On this understanding, the primaries may pose more of a challenge for Sanders than the general election, in that the prediction of his unelectability could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But primary voters shouldn’t single out Sanders for their worry; the fact is that neither Warren nor Biden is obviously more electable than Sanders. Both have weaknesses Trump could exploit: for instance, Warren could be mocked for her “elitist” Harvard resumé, her claims to Native American ancestry, and (like Sanders) her “ultra-left” program. Biden, on the other hand, is prone to gaffes, is just as much an “establishment” candidate as Hillary Clinton was, and lacks “the vision thing” that Sanders and Warren have in spades. Trump would have a field day depicting him as senile, bumbling, out-of-touch, undisciplined, corrupt, etc.
As for Sanders, the argument that he’s far to the left of the electorate is belied by polls. Nationally, he is consistently more popular than Trump, while among Democrats he is competitive with Warren and Biden. Support for the two left-wing candidates together trounces support for the centrist Biden.
On issues, the electorate—consistent with its largely working-class composition—tends to be left-wing. A majority favors Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, worker representation on corporate boards, free college tuition and student debt cancellation, a wealth tax, and other leftist goals. If Sanders were given the sort of universal media coverage Trump was in 2016—as opposed to being regularly ignored—it’s likely that support for him would increase. After all, people tend to like politicians with a simple, consistent, populist message, the message that “I’ll fight for you.” No one delivers this message more forcefully than Sanders.
Attempts to predict election results are a fool’s errand, but it should be clear, at least, that in a working-class country such as the U.S., a candidate whose essence is his appeal to the working class has a definite shot at winning. The question is whether he and his millions of supporters can neutralize the corporate chorus of disinformation and fear-mongering about “socialism.”
In an age of working-class desperation, this question, too, may prove to have an affirmative answer.