Colloquy on Thomas Edsall and "The White Working Class"

Editor:  This post is a colloquy -- conversation -- between Political Affairs Writers on an article by Thomas Edsall that appeared several days ago in the New York Times arguing, among other points, that Obama should disregard the so-called "white working class" in favor of a coalition of liberal  "middle-class" whites together with African-American, Latino, Asian-American and other national or racial minorities, women, and the LGBT communities to win the 2012 election.  I call this advice on how to lose the election, from a "Fox-News" democrat, or "faux Democrat".  But since efforts to divide progressive forces and thus elect a Republican can be expected to come from all directions, it behooves us, I think, to explore the notions behind this "friendly advice" --- friendly somewhat in the manner that a rope supports a hanged man!

Please feel free to join the colloquy in the comment section!

John Case:  The thesis of this article -- that only white bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces, not white workers--can be won to multinational, multi-racial positions and unity -- needs to be resolutely defeated -- or there will be little future to the Obama coalition in any progressive sense, in any sense that bears upon the 1% vs the 99%, that bears upon advancing either democracy, or socialism.


Norman Markowitz: Edsall has been pushing this line for a very long time, long before Obama, as a voice for defining the white working class as Reagan Democrats who should be won to the Democratic party by accepting a version of Reaganism. ...The kind of leadership that Edsall identifies with in effect took the Democrats down under Carter and Clinton.

Carl Davidson: A few points to start us off on this one:   First, on FDR's coalition. We should not forget that a major bloc in it was 'the Solid South,' ie the segregationists. They rebelled some in 1948, but were in open revolt by the 1960s against the gains of the civil rights movement. That was what spurred the mass breakaway of older and more conservative-minded working class whites to the GOP, and changed the Dominant party in the South from the Dems to the GOP, and in other places as well.

We can't win them back by repealing the the 1960s--and although some of them could change positively, they're likely to die of old age first.

I live and do political work at ground zero of this particular battle. My township is 99.5 percent white and 90 percent working class. In 2008, we considered in a major achievement that we only lost by four points--48 percent for Obama, 52 for McCain. Trumka's intervention fired up the unions to press hard for Obama, to tell white workers to vote their interests and not their prejudices. Gradually, people came to see the need to give Obama a chance, given the Bush crash.

But it was tentative. Now Obama has a record to run on, or at least defend and explain. It's not pretty. Most of the things both Black and white workers could unite around--HR 676, EFCA, Out Now from the Wars, Green Jobs, a financial transaction tax to fund a full employment drive, and so on--have been declared 'off the table' by the Dems, ie, they will surrender them all without a fight to Blue Dogs and the GOP

That puts us at an extreme disadvantage this round. One ray of hope is in looking deeper at our returns in my township, where the young white worker voters, with high school degrees as well as with some college, voted for Obama by two to one, going against the trend of their elders. But this layer of voters doesn't turn out unless they are specially energized. The average voter, after all, is over 60.

Right now it's OWS that's energizing at least a part of them that are being crushed by student debt burdens and the lack of jobs. Many of my nephews and nieces with some college behind them are making the most money as waitstaff and bartenders, and they are deeply frustrated. They don't know what to do, but they distrust politicians deeply.

That's the same feeling I saw at the last 'Good Job, Green Jobs' Conference in DC--deep frustration. These young people worked for years in a variety of NGOs and unions coming up with a wide range of decent plans for green jobs in new manufacturing and clean energy. They found themselves banging their heads against a brick wall of 'deficit reduction' madness.

My point is the problem is not so much this article, but whether the Dems will fight in the interests of the working class, and against the sectors of finance capital driving all of us to ruin. So far only PDA and the Progressive Caucus, along with some unions and civil rights groups, are doing so with any consistency. They have 80 votes out of 535. That shows the relation of forces in Congress, but not at the base, At the base, we are stronger, but not strong enough yet.

Bottom line: If you want to deconstruct the 'whiteness' binding some workers to the GOP against their interest, you can't do it without an approach that fights FOR their interests in a straightforward, militant way.

Norman Markowitz:  Thomas Edsall's article rewrites the political history of the United States in order to accuse the Obama administration of "abandoning" the "white working class," meaning industrial workers whose jobs have been leaving the nation in large numbers since the 1970s, who media has portrayed as "hard hats," Reagan Democrats," etc. The New Deal coalition of the 1930s which saw the Democrats become a majority party also included African-Americans in large numbers, intellectuals and professionals alienated not only from the depression but from the "business of America is business" Republicans, and industrial unionists. The Democratic machines and Southern segregationists were also there, but their was largely negative, supporting the New Deal because of its payoffs to them and in the case of the Southerners, opposing integration.

The Democrats lived off the political capital of the New Deal, Center-Left coalition as they as a party zigzagged, moving to the right after 1948 and then to the left in the mid 1960s and then sharply to the right in the mid 1970s until Obama election.

Obama has abandonedd the "white working class." His stimulus programs, while inadequate given the dimensions of the crisis and undermined by rightwing Republican governors in many states, have done more to provide jobs for construction workers, many of whom are members of that class, than Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton combined. His general motors bailout, however one may be critical of it, saved the jobs of working class people, black and white. If anything, the administration's failure to address effectively the attack on the jobs, incomes, and benefits of public workers at the state and local level has harmed minority and women workers who are concentrated in those areas of the economy more than "white" workers.

Edsall is engaging in "inside dopester analysis" reading pollsters the way betters used to read the daily racing form. There is absolutely no evidence to support his contention. If anything, Obama even with his failings and those of the Democrats in Congress has pursued policies that are more in line with the working class led political coalition that made the Democrats a majority party from te 1930s to the 1970s than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, who both had much larger majorities than Obama and largely abandoned those policies to pursue the Vietnam War escalation.

Perhaps Edsall hopes that his article will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or simply another pundit moment. His analysis is skewed, his evidence skimpy in the extreme, and its only practical effect can be to help the Republicans play the politics of division and resentment which they have used over the last forty years to win elections.

Keith Joseph:I agree with what Carl is saying here.

I just wanted to add two points. First, the definition of working class in the article is very narrow. The NY Times is defining class by education levels and income. Not that the article isn't talking about something real but I wouldn't define class this way (in the Communist Manifesto class is defined by ownership of means of production and in Capital Marx offers, what I think is more useful, a definition of class based on the relationship to suprlus value production, appropriation and distribution).

Secondly, around the question of interest. I think that we need to see that while the Democrats may better represent their economic interest than republicans (not saying much) many "white workers" do feel that the Democrats are elitists around cultural and social issues. And feel the republicans better represent them in these cultural interest.

While some of these "cultural" interests are reactionary some are neutral but treated as backwards or inferior by liberals and even some progressives and revolutionaries.

Many vegetarians on the left, for example, adopt a holier than thou attitude which they extend to practices like hunting and fishing. (When Democrats try to engage these practices they inevitably act the fool like the John Kerry campaign ad in his designer goose hunting outfit. The disdain for things like NASCAR (which emerged out of bootlegging culture), and professional sports in general, as well as popular culture in general are additional examples.

So while it is true that Democrats better represent economic interest of the working class in general, the Republicans are better representatives of cultural interests of at least a portion of the working class.


Joe Sims: What do I think of Edsall's article? Well the short answer is that based on my experience in Ohio in the last presidential election - I spent 5 weeks there, 3 of which were working in the white working class suburbs - the short answer is that I still have Hope. By the way Obama is 5 points ahead of his closest GOP contender in Ohio. A surprise to me but still a hopeful sign.

It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the vote by age, education, occupation etc in Ohio. I think it would be more indicative of national trends than stats offered by the Edsall which do not account for region, particularly since the South represents a special case regarding the white vote and heavily weights on the national stats.

I did not know that the writers Edsall cites have positions in the Democratic Party or more importantly in the Obama re-election team not that the two are synonymous. So what the actual strategy is regarding white workers may have to be looked for elsewhere, particularly in the trade unions who have the principal task of organizing the working-class vote. Of course, there is no mention of this in the article, nor of the new social movements in the mid-west, the occupy movement etc and its possible impact on the elections. But of course this should not surprise anyone.

In general Edsall offers anything new.

Many of the strata ascribed to petite-bourgeoisie in the article are in fact unionized members of the working class.

In addition there are huge conceptual flaws with the article. Last time I looked there was only one working class in the USA; hence the formulation "white working class" offers little insight into what's going on; and then of course flowing from this is the division of the class according to education - with workers having a h.s. diploma on one side of the divide and petite-bourgeois strata having graduated college on the other. Something to consider yes but the determining factor?

What is new are the polls on race and here there's been a sea change; the youth vote that broke 66 percent for Obama last time; the labor movement's approach to the youth and student movement etc which is unprecedented.

Finally there can be no "winning" of white worker's vote apart from its organization and unionization. And the key to that is card check; and more broadly political and ideological struggle. I suppose Democrats will play a role here; but the source for such movement lies outside that party's structures. Anyway; like I said, I'm still hopeful.



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  • Good discussion. Progressives have a tough task to convince the working class, especially the White working class (WWC), to vote their interests and not their prejudices. Since the 1960’s, the WWC has been slowly abandoning the Democratic Party because the Right-Wingers have worked hard to convince them that the Democratic Party is more interested in advancing minority groups interests. The Right-Wingers imply that white privilege and status are threatened if Blacks, Hispanics, women, immigrants, and LGBT communities are not keep down and scapegoated. Most of the WWC have bought into the ethos of capitalism; the racism, the competitiveness, the Social Darwinian belief that what others gain will be at their expense. Then there is the cultural gap that exists between the WWC and, for example, Blacks. Most in the WWC buy into the ‘culture of poverty thesis’ to explain black poverty, crime, joblessness. The Right-Wingers have been also working hard to reinforce those beliefs. To win the WWC back cannot be separated from their organization, unionization and the class consciousness that instills true working class culture i.e. socialism. Ironically, the WWC has benefitted the most from the social legislations of the New Deal, Great Society, and the welfare state. The Right has nothing better to offer except to take it all back as they build their YOYO society of ‘You’re on your own.’ Their YOYO utopia will have no Social Security, Medicare, health insurance, minimum wage laws, collective bargaining or other labor union rights. Eventually, the Right will find it increasingly difficult to fool the workers into voting against their interests. The Right will then have to discard Democracy in favor of a brutal repressive oligarchy or outright Fascism. ---Nat Turner

    Posted by Nat Turner, 01/07/2012 1:44am (12 years ago)

  • President Obama and Democrats have totally alienated the " Wage Earning Working Class" White,Black,Hispanic or otherwise. Obama campaigned as a real champion for workers in 2008 but has since lost all credibility. His support of more bad free trade deals that put people out of work and his lack of attention to things that benefit workers such as the card check legislation will not serve his reelection very well at all. Obama is a corporate Democrat just like Bill Clinton was. The Republicans are all corporate insiders as well so no matter how you vote or who you vote for it doesn't make a difference. The American People just vote and pay taxes but don't have any representation. This has been set aside for those who finance campaigns and have the right connections in the wealthy elite inner circle of business and politics.

    Posted by Rick, 12/27/2011 8:15pm (12 years ago)

  • This Thomas Byrne Edsall, this academic from Brown, has dubious journalism, reporting for Fox to NPR of recent date.
    Brother Sims makes the point of this Edsall notion,"the white working class" concept. Such is anti-scientific. Labor is neither "white" nor "black"-it may be in white or black skin- but one thing is sure," will never be free as long as in the black skin, it is branded."
    In the days of the 99%, with Marx and his book Capital , flying of shelves, this is a desperate attempt at confusion, willy-nilly, who better than an Edsall, to create confusion?
    99% percent means virtually all class, all people unity-except the one per cent of coupon clippers, monopoly bankers, and stock traders looking down, down, down at a 99% becoming 99.99%, with the increasing impoverishment of all labor. Capitalism exploits and ruins all national and international labor- from the brain surgeon to the cook and seamstress-we can be hopeful in the master of the economics of capitalism- Marx. Through the growing struggles of democracy, "expropriators will be expropriated."

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/20/2011 12:14pm (12 years ago)

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