An Introduction: Class and the Politics of Place

This is the post excerpt.

Hello, friends, and welcome to Pivot Points, my personal attempt to identify and grapple with the important issues of life. You see, instead of taking the traditional approaches to deciding what matters, which would lead me to concern myself with either everything or nothing at all, I’m taking this third option, arbitrarily choosing certain topics to write about here and pretending that careful choices underlie my scribbling instead of flights of fancy. These will probably revolve around politics and other news items, with maybe some digressions about cartoons or music here and there, but once I get comfortable with this format, who knows, I could find inspiration from all sorts of places.

Now, I’ll begin with some ruminations on class identity and American political parties. I think it’s safe to say that both the Democratic and Republican parties face identity crises right now, not sure what they do, or should stand for, and who they represent, hence the contentious primary seasons they both enjoyed. Now, the state of the modern Republican Party is infinitely fascinating, as their far-right Freedom Caucus wing comes to terms with the idea that their base hadn’t, in fact, been demanding a perpetual march to the right, or at least had renounced that desire in voting for somebody as ideologically amorphous as Donald Trump. Still, those issues and internal contradictions will be hashed out on a day to day basis as the GOP tries to govern, with the kind of comprehensive state and federal power they haven’t enjoyed since the 1920’s. We’ll all learn the hard way what they stand for, and, well, as a leftist myself, if I did have any useful insights to offer them about their direction, I’d probably be inclined to withhold them anyways. So instead, I’ll focus on the Democrats, who have the time while in opposition to rediscover themselves on their own terms, locked out of power as they are.

One thing I’m gonna try to do periodically as I write these blog entries is to try and articulate some general principles and observations of American politics that I’ve either discovered or postulated myself over a decade plus of political engagement. The first thing to keep in mind about the parties is that they’re opposed, but they are not mirror images of each other. Republicans see smaller government as an end in itself, but whereas Democrats often want to expand government to provide more services to the needy, they don’t see the expansion as a good by itself, but only as a means to an end. By the same token, it’s occurred to me over the course of the Party’s post-Trump recrimination that while Republicans don’t concern themselves so much about what class their Party represents, Democrats care a great deal about being seen as the champions of the working class. And as the Sanders-Clinton fractures from the primary have ruptured open again in response to November’s defeat, a major bone of contention is just how well the Party does in the role of representing the poor, and to what degree has that mantle been usurped by Trump’s GOP. And this question underlies all of the attempts by the left to determine what motivated Trump’s white working class base to turn out for him, because if they did so for economic issues more than racial animus, then it follows that the Democrats have failed in their responsibilities to protect the poor, or at least in being understood as protecting the poor. Out of all of this, you get pieces like those from Vox’s Dylan Matthews arguing that Trump’s base is really quite well-off and doesn’t deserve our pity.

And you know what? Maybe he’s right. The numbers are there (and backed by Nate Silver as well), voters in general tend to be better off than the general population, and, well, the working class includes disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics who are generally Democrats. So Democrats remain the party of the poor…but the thing is, they’re also the party of the well-educated, and that means that they attract a lot of rich voters as well. There’s a reason that Democrats have been able to pull even with Republicans in campaign spending despite their traditional disadvantage. So, if Democrats represent both the top and the bottom of the income ladder in their coalition, then where does that leave us, class-wise? Now, one answer is to ditch the class distinctions altogether, and focus on the identitarian issues that divide Democrats from Republicans, with the former representing women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and others who value cosmopolitanism and tolerance as opposed to the hidebound cultural conservatism that animates the GOP. And while these are all important features to help shape the Democrats and help define our values moving forward, I think there’s still something left that can be mined out of the old Marxist narrative of differing economic interests.

At this point, I think an illuminating piece from March of 2016 by Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative helps offer a different model for understanding economic debate in a globalized world. We understand issues of trade as a conflict between the rich and the working class, where the workers lose their manufacturing jobs to foreign competition, while the one percent pocket the difference, but there’s more to it than that. First, as any free trade advocate will tell you, the reduction in wages suffered by the manufacturing workers will be made up for by lower prices on consumer goods. I have reservations about this model that I’ll share some other time, but let’s just go with it. The point is that trade and globalization will disproportionately hurt some workers, but other members of the same economic class might prove to be beneficiaries of these processes instead. Dreher cites a Weekly Standard expose on the political changes in France brought about by globalization. A money line from this is: “Why would you expect Paris to have a middle class? Paris’ prospects have improved because it has specialized…[T]he jobs that the middle class used to do all over France – manufacturing, mostly – are best done elsewhere.” The key here isn’t a decline in manufacturing, but a relocation of it.

Some other time I’ll talk about demographic sorting, but what matters for right now is that American society, like French society, has segregated itself. Why couldn’t Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2012 despite winning more Congressional votes? Gerrymandering, yes, but also because Democratic voters are concentrated in cities and university towns. This includes both the rich and educated members of the coalition as well as poor minorities. What do these groups have in common? They’re the ones for whom globalization works. And this is borne out by the numbers, too: don’t let Sanders’ campaign or Hillary Clinton’s about-face on the TPP fool you, Democrats actually favor free trade by large margins now. What matters in American politics now isn’t class, or even necessarily race, but geography. I said I’d explain my free trade reservations later, but one thing that needs to be understood right now is that its cheerleaders only consider net good for a society that trades. The problem is that the benefits tend to be more diffuse, but the damage is concentrated – just ask the Rust Belt. Trump’s voters aren’t poor, per se, but they’re the losers in globalization, and doing bad isn’t as bad as doing worse than you were in the past.

So, where does that leave us terms of helping out the communities that are being hit hard by trade and other economic forces? To be honest, I don’t know. Trump hasn’t lifted a finger to help them out so far, and neither have other Republicans. The irony is that their communities are, if anything, overrepresented in Congress, but it doesn’t matter because their elected representatives were co-opted by global interests decades ago. Maybe we do need a Sanders figure to reach out to them, but that’s just a campaign measure, and it still doesn’t address the original question of what Democrats stand for going forward. We can be the Party of Globalization’s winners, and we can be the Party of the Poor in theory, but to really honor the spirit of the second title, we do need to give some thought to globalization’s losers, too. It’s the liberal thing to do.

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