The US Working Class Meets the Elections and Loses Ground

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The recent election campaign pitted one capitalist-oriented political party against another. But class conflict continued and working people did not fare well.

The election period was show-time for U.S. racial antagonisms. Candidates of both parties responded variously to racism. With working-class voters filling the ranks of each one, the U.S. working class was shown to be divided as it responded to racism. These are divisions that weaken the working class.

The police killing of George Floyd occurred in late May. Soon crowds of white and Black people were protesting together in little towns and big cities of the United States and even worldwide. This unprecedented display of Black-white unity might have been a golden moment. Justice-minded candidates for office, Black and white, might have raised their voices against the racism permeating the U.S. experience.

It was not to be. Democrats joined Republicans in focusing on public safety. They slandered the protesters as rioters. The police in many cities arrested and/or injured disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx protesters; extrajudicial killings mounted, right-wing militias materialized, and federal security forces intervened.

The slogan “defund the police” made the rounds, prompting conservatives of both parties to interpret that demand as a call to get rid of or weaken the police. They inveighed against risk to property and lives.  For many Republicans, the issue was respect for authority.   President Trump denounced Black Lives Matter protesters as “symbols of hate.”

Responsibility for dealing with objectionable police behavior lies with governmental bodies hiring the police. In choosing office-holders, voters share that responsibility. But governmental accountability for the police killings was never an issue put before the voters. Many Democratic candidates, Joe Biden among them, denounced racism in general terms. Biden met with George Floyd’s family.

Disunity in the working class represents a gift to the capitalists. Vast numbers of white voters, many belonging to the so-called “white working class,” backed the racist candidate for president:  58% of whites voted for Trump, as did 55% of white women. Latinxs and African Americans turned out in droves. Counter-balancing racists in both parties, they secured the election for Joe Biden.

Creation of the New Deal in the 1930s proved the usefulness of working-class unity in propelling social reforms. Presently the working class is splintered and, now at least, prospects for the proposed Green New Deal are unfavorable.

The working class took one more hit during the election campaign; Republicans labeled their opponents as socialists. For their pains they gained support from some immigrants from left-leaning Latin American countries.

Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris laughed on being acquainted with the charge. Biden felt obliged to deny speaking “one single syllable” in favor of socialism. Other Democrats followed the lead of the Republicans, and with serious consequences.

Centrist Democrats blamed the defeat of Democratic congresspersons on their embrace of policies associated with Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Likewise, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, regarded his party’s victories there as a “mandate against socialism.”

Red-scare, implemented through demagoguery and lying, thus took its toll. It reached its apogee in the mid-twentieth century and never entirely disappeared. Intimidation produced by false fears of this nature has discouraged agitation and organization, and governmental action, on behalf of disadvantaged Americans.

Finally: during the election period, the working class and its allies lost political space for debate that might have enabled them to agitate, maybe successfully, for political and social reform. Distractions moved in.  The mix included both jostling over various cultural, social and even religious questions and attention bestowed upon showman Donald Trump, mediated by the corporate media.

The issues themselves – abortion, the role of religious fundamentalism, immigration, disappearing jobs, changing industrial patterns, the snobbery of elites, and wealth inequalities – were not new. Even so, their high visibility in an unsettled time generated rancor and resentment disruptive enough to muddle the electoral process. Whether by accident or design is unclear.

Leaders of governments adapt their strategic thinking to accommodate their own economic and political imperatives. Presently they face the quandary, some say, of having to preserve the capitalist system while also saving the environment and securing justice for everyone. Intent on preserving power and privileges, they do not act.  Meanwhile, the working class, potentially motivated to act, is put on hold.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.