Working-class anger and the problem of progressive politics

07 January 2016

David Coates  - Professor of Anglo-American Studies, Wake Forest University, North Carolina

The only effective answer to right-wing populism is the creation and deployment of a superior left-wing alternative

The start of a new year – especially the start of an important election year as this one happens to be in the United States – is a good time to reflect on the broad strategic choices facing progressive forces on both sides of the Atlantic. One issue in particular is relevant in the US right now, given the kind of support that continues to flow to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump – namely, how to respond, as progressives, to the anger bubbling under the surface of much of that support. There may be more anger currently under the surface of US politics than UK politics; but the rise of UKIP suggests that there is anger in the UK too – and, if there is, then maybe it’s best understood by first examining the relationship of Donald Trump to America’s growing number of angry white men.

The Trump campaign continues to defy the regular rules of US presidential politics by its capacity to combine ever more outlandish statements from the candidate with ever more embedded support for him from a particular social demographic. Thus far, the core Trump supporter turns out to be a white, non-college educated man, typically earning less than the US median wage. Europeans would probably label such Americans as working-class or even as petit-bourgeois (since many are self-employed or work for very tiny companies indeed). But, characteristically, these core Trump supporters define themselves as middle-class and see their middle-class status threatened by the tough economic conditions currently surrounding them and by the impact on the wider political climate of social movements representing groups of Americans even less privileged than themselves – movements demanding equal rights and better conditions for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, low-paid workers and women earning on average 79 cents on the male dollar.

Many such Trump supporters are not just mobilised. They are also angry – angry because they feel threatened from above, and angry because they feel challenged from below. Donald Trump is attractive to his core base precisely because he is willing to recognise and articulate that anger. He appeals to them through his deliberate flaunting of political correctness and his willingness to demonise undocumented immigrants (not to mention the entire Muslim population), as well as through his promise to make America great again – not least through his determination to renegotiate trade deals that outsource American jobs.

So far, the standard Democratic Party response to the Trump bluster has been twin-tracked: attempting to outbid him on outsourcing (and on the associated set of promises on jobs, wages and redistributive taxation) and simultaneously promising to meet the demands of each social movement in turn. In effect, the argument has been basically a cumulative one. African-Americans need affirmative action. Democrats promise it. Hispanic-Americans need a route to citizenship for the undocumented workers among them. Democrats advocate it. Women workers need both equal pay and protection from gender discrimination. Democrats promise both. Angry Trump supporters want less taxation and more secure employment. Democrats promise to tax the rich and generate economic growth through public spending.

The problem with progressive politicians seeking votes by simply adding constituencies together in this manner is that the entire strategy fails to concede that, as American capitalism is currently organized, the interests of the various groups of the American poor and near-poor do not in fact easily add together in that fashion. On the contrary, to a terrifying degree, many of the immediate interests of disadvantaged groups of Americans stand in direct tension with each other. So, for example, historically, the precarious hold of white working-class voters on employment and wages co-existed with (and relied upon) the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from any similar hold on work and wages. Policies of affirmative action developed in response to that exclusion did not create a greater number of jobs or better wages that everyone could then share. Instead, such policies simply redistributed existing levels of employment and pay towards African-Americans and away from their white equivalents, thereby stoking the very white racism they were attempting to remove. Likewise, the post-1980s arrival of large numbers of unskilled Hispanic labourers into the United States helped native-born workers rise up the wage ladder when the economy was booming, but only weakened the bargaining position of their native-born equivalents when, as now, the economy grew more slowly, if at all.

In short, in an economy lacking enough good paying jobs, there is nothing natural and automatic about a fusion of interests between poor whites, poor blacks and newly arrived Hispanics. If that fusion is wanted, it has to be created by political effort.

This should, of course, not come as a shock to Democratic Party strategists, because American capitalism has for years played one group off against another; and because to this day right-wing populism – of which Donald Trump’s is merely the latest example – finds it both easy and electorally advantageous to stoke the flames of the racial divisions that are so deeply structured into the way the American economy treats workers and American society organises everything from housing and education to healthcare and leisure. Indeed, given the depth of these divisions between its various potential constituencies, it hardly requires a Ph.D. in political science to recognise that the Democratic Party will never pull its entire potential base together if it insists on pursuing electoral strategies that disregard the potency of the division of interests between key groups within that base. The Party will in fact only ever pull its entire potential base together by designing and advocating a new social settlement in the United States that combines social justice for all with renewed economic prosperity for everybody – a settlement that at long last would enable each group of the American poor to prosper without relying on the system to hold its neighbours down.

What candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton need to do in 2016, therefore, if they are successfully to deflate the Trump bubble, is deliberately and regularly to offer their potential voters a key strategic choice: either to sustain a politics that focuses on specific group goals alone, thereby allowing one group off to be played off against another; or to call all the disadvantaged groups in US society into a common campaign for a fundamentally reformed America. What’s more, at the core of that progressive call for fundamental reform has to be a new and a more radical economics. The Democratic Party needs to put at the heart of its campaign for the White House in 2016 an economic strategy that will raise the wages of all sections of the American poor by distributing wealth and income downwards and at the same time use the purchasing power redistributed downwards in that fashion to grow the US economy from the bottom up, and at a more rapid pace. Put differently, it will have to put at the core of its message a far more radical economic programme than the one it will inherit from the Obama administration.

If such a more radical strategy is not developed and articulated – if, in other words, leading Democratic candidates simply move from issue-group to issue-group addressing group concerns alone – then right-wing populism in the United States will surely continue to rob the democratic left of the strong class base which it needs to build and sustain successful progressive politics. Progressive politics cannot triangulate with the likes of Donald Trump. It has to defeat him at his own game by responding to the economic issues and widespread anger into which he has tapped with a superior and genuinely progressive response of its own.

Ultimately, the only effective answer to right-wing populism is the creation and deployment of a superior left-wing equivalent. And that’s true not just of the United States, but of the United Kingdom also!

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