Reply to Brooks: Enlightened Working People Expect a Lot from Their Political Party 

Photograph Source: Lorie Shaull – CC BY-SA 2.0

White working-class voters who recently switched to the Republicans have not yet returned to the Democratic Party. They should do that, New York Times columnist David Brooks points out. After all, the Biden administration has “pursued an ambitious agenda to support the working class … [and] economic results have been fantastic.”

He outlines a divide between Republican voters, who mostly lack college degrees and may live in rural areas and small towns, and Democrats,whom he reports as being urban-based, college-educated, and snobby. He mentions a “seismic political realignment,” which “is more about culture and identity than it is about economics.”

Brooks suggests that, if the Biden administration matched the commitment shown by the New Deal, a Democratic Party legacy, many former Democrats voting Republican would return home. Those less attentive to working-class interests and more susceptible to demagoguery and myth-making would presumably remain where they are.

Brooks doesn’t explain why cultural phenomena and the political use of people’s identity led to voters moving to another party. These played out in a way that encouraged a kind of politics that overwhelmed political undertakings crucial to various sectors of the working class.

The object here is to examine some of these political projects and thereby identify certain causes that are off limits to working people who vote Republican. Whether they are compelling enough to persuade errant Democrats to return to the fold is uncertain. So too is the Biden Administration’s dedication to pursuing such struggles.

In any case aspirations inspiring the kinds of activism described below are not far removed from urgings toward a coherent and consistent working-people’s political movement or political party.

Culture and its Variations

Brooks’s use of the term “culture” seemingly embraces religious beliefs, persisting racial prejudice, views on abortion and gender nonconformity, rural distrust of city life, and support for gun ownership.

Working-class history is about another kind of culture. The French and American Revolutions of the late 18th century left behind a culture of democracy. It involved popular elections, expanded legislative power, and guarantees of political rights. Royalty and feudal remnants mostly disappeared. Political newspapers and public debate flourished.

Some of the founders thought George Washington ought to be king. Fearful of democracy, they provided for indirect presidential and Senate elections, gave big and little states equal representation in the Senate and Electoral College, counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person, and denied women the vote.

Democratic malaise manifests now as: disappearing consensus that elections decide who becomes president, gerrymandered congressional districts, elections given over to money-power, and the Electoral College’s disregard of the idea of one person-one vote.

But democratic forces return. Even as the Constitution took effect, struggling farmers and backwoodsmen rebelled against wealthy politicians in charge of new state governments. Agitation for democracy would resurface in fights for women’s suffrage, voting for the racially excluded and propertyless, economic justice for small farmers (in the progressive era), better wages and working conditions, and civil rights – and fights also to abolish corporate monopolies, slavery, child labor, and police violence.

Working people, socialists included, have long defended democracy. Socialists have realized that the democratic rights achieved by early revolutionists enabled struggles later on for social and economic change.

Presently, working-class voters allied to the Democratic Party most certainly prioritize renewed struggle for democratic guarantees aimed at shoring up a U.S. democracy in trouble.

Hazards of Identity Politics

Brooks doesn’t explore exactly how misuse of people’s identity disturbs U.S. politics. He implies that working people are somehow hurt.

The identity of being a woman often leads to trouble. Their political struggles have provoked anti-women biases and stereotypes. The origins and evolution of these are so nebulous as to not provide a basis for criticism that would actually end them. They recur, as with current fight over abortion. No end is in sight.

There is another way. Many women struggle now to overcome remnants of the dependency and obligation visited upon them at the beginning of industrialization. It’s an unfinished battle.

Men, and even women and children, were working in the new factories as independent contractors. The state and employers were oblivious to their domestic circumstances. Families were on their own to raise children, find and prepare food, and seek protection. Women were the ones who were responsible.

Factory owners and other capitalists even now regard women’s work at home as a “free gift.” Although less onerous, women’s state of dependency verging on oppression remains.

The manufacturing and service industries today cannot do without women’s work; it has long served them well in quality and quantity. That factor, and women’s struggle too, have induced power-brokers reluctantly to attend to women’s collective demands for fairness and basic equality. Women’s fight continues, but on the basis of realities in their lives, not on their identity.

As women and their families gain access to the social and economic resources needed for preparing new generations, women work toward a new independence freeing them from governmental intrusions in their private affairs, notably their freedom to choose an abortion.

Racial Identity

The idea of affirmative action was to open up access to higher education and jobs for previously excluded persons. Racial and gender identity has been the marker of such exclusion. That’s what admissions officers and employers pay attention to.

The process of expanding admissions to colleges and universities is unfair. Large numbers of U.S. young people eligible for affirmative action through their racial identity can’t aspire towards higher education. Their families are poor and vulnerable to social catastrophe. Their schools likely are inadequate.

The families of most students benefiting from affirmative action have economic resources. Those students usually have originated from the middle and upper strata of the various minority groupings.  Most have attended good schools. They thrived from encouragement and high expectations at home.

A fix is at hand in the form of economic security for all, better schools, and universal availability of decent jobs. Capable young people of the working class would understand that they are due high-quality education from start to finish. It would be a kind of affirmative action that leads to hope and overcomes division.

David Brooks credits the Biden administration for creating new jobs, including jobs for workers without a college degree. Wondering why working-class people don’t return to the Democrats, he could have produced a more direct answer than one based on speculation about effects of culture and identity.

Working people’s needs other than jobs go unrecognized. Brooks might have mentioned good schools, healthcare for all, housing for all, and guaranteed income. He would then have been entering territory of the unspeakable, which is redistribution of wealth.

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