Trump, Democrats and the Lumpenproletariat Problem

Photograph Source: May4th – CC BY 2.0

The American Democratic Party has a problem with white working-class America – they lost them, or at least large segments of them to Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Policy reasons may explain part of this. But a better explanation may be that these voters fit the description of what Karl Marx used to call the Lumpenproletariat–reactionary working class opposed to revolution or at least progressive politics.  Understanding who these individuals are may be critical to Democrats winning in 2020.

The 2016 US presidential vote saw counties with a greater percentage whites and a percentage of the population with only a high school degree or less voter for Donald Trump. This is the white working class. This vote was a continuation of a trend that began with Richard Nixon’s 1968 appeal to the working class with law and order themes.  It then goes to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 exploitation of their economic insecurities as America was deindustrializing and closing factories and industrial plants across the country, resulting in the loss of millions of jobs, and George H. W. Bush’s 1988 pandering to racial fears with Willie Horton.

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign brought all these themes together in his “Make America Great Again” slogan, blaming immigrants, Muslims, and anyone not straight, white, and mostly male and working class for what ails the country. “Make America Great Again” was explicit in its reactionary themes, much in the same way the original 2016 UK Brexit vote and the 2019 Boris Johnson victory was.  All these votes were marked by the loss of the white working class–once a mainstay of the Democratic Party in the US or the Labor Party in the UK–to the Republican and Conservative Parties respectively.

In America, policy positions adopted by the Democratic Party can partly explain the loss of the white working class.  One suggestion is that President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights bill led to what he reputedly said was the loss of the south for a generation. Yet it was not so much the signing of the civil rights act as it was the abandonment of class and the embrace of identity politics that cost the Democrats the South and white working class. When US deindustrialization started to kick in during the 1970s, Democrats failed to offer a competing economic response to the global restructuring of capitalism.

They instead embraced neo-liberal economic solutions and talked race and social issues.  Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1994 crime bill and attacking “superpredators” was no different than Nixon’s law and order appeals.  Clinton also signed the 1996 welfare reform bill, signaling a retreat from progressive economic policies.  Obama’s refusal to push for reform of the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier to form unions, and his continuation of his predecessor’s bailout of the banks and not workers or home owners after the 2008 economic crash all also examples of the rush to the right.

Classic Communist Manifesto Marx would have said that these actions were part of a crisis of late stage capitalism characterized by a declining ability of the bourgeoisie to maintain profits.  This should have resulted in the increasing immiserization of the proletariat and the development of the conditions for revolutionary consciousness and action.  Yet it did not happen, leading some to suggest that Marx was wrong about capitalism and class struggle.

Yet Marx did foresee this problem with some workers, and it resides in his concept of the Lumpenproletariat.    Who are the Lumpenproletariats?  In the Communist Manifesto he defines them as the “lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant.”   He sees them as willing to fight against the bourgeoisie to save themselves from extinction, and they are a reactionary group who wish to “roll back the wheel of history.”   Elsewhere, such as in the German Ideology and The Class Struggle in France he describes the Lumpenproletariat as the “scum of the Earth,” thieves, or a group historically caught between peasants and freeman.  Yet bracketing off these more derogatory descriptions, many of Trump’s white working-class base fits the description of the Lumpenproletariat.

Marx anticipated that a group of the working class would not be amendable to revolutionary action.  They would be pulled self-defensively, prone to resisting change.  Now couple this concept of the Lumpenproletariat with two other observations about Marx.  One, as critics pointed out, Marx and Marxism have a problem with race, failing to see how non-class oppression was an issue.  In theory, Marx failed to see how race could be used as a tool to break class solidarity among the proletariat.  Yet the concept of the Lumpenproletariat provides an opening, especially if one views racism and racialized rhetoric and politics as either structural or ideological tools to divide.

Two, as Theodore Adorno contended in his 1950 The Authoritarian Personality, certain personality types are linked to, and prone to appeals to anti-democratic behavior.   The traits of the authoritarian personality included anti-intellectualism, stereotyping, and often misogynist behavior.  The traits of the authoritarian personality fit well into the concept of the Lumpenproletariat.

Assuming that much of the Trump base fits the description of Lumpenproletariat, what are the implications?  For one, it is not clear over the last 50 years if now going into the 2020 US presidential elections that significant appeals to class and economics could have moved these voters back to the Democrats.  Perhaps had the Democratic Party continued to talk class many of these workers would have stayed with them, but it is not clear that faced with the threat of extinction they could have be moved toward more progressive politics.  Two, even if the Democrats had continued to talk class, appeals today to them on the basis of class and economics may not be powerful enough to move them electorally;  they may be lost politically and if demographics are correct, they are facing significant distinction over time.  Three, while progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders may be able to shift some of these voters to them, betting on wholesale shifting of the Lumpenproletariat to the Democrats is unlikely.

Finally, none of this analysis should be construed to suggest that it does not matter if the Democrats pick a conservative or progressive candidate for president in 2020.  In an election based on the electoral college and not the popular vote, policy prescriptions and candidate strategy in a handful of swing states will decide the outcome.  Here the mobilization by Trump of the Lumpenproletariat compared to the Democrats’ ability to move their base is what will decide the election, with in some cases some of the working class in play.  The trick for the Democrats is identifying which working class voters they can or cannot move.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.