Liberals Should Stop Feeling Sorry for Idiots

Today's Working Class: Mr. Block Triumphant! 

File this one in the drawer marked “Has anyone paying attention for the past 40 years?” Gary Younge’s recent piece for the Guardian reveals that poor white Americans prefer Mitt Romney to Barack Obama by a 58% to 32% margin. The Guardian is a British paper, but its coverage of American politics is generally more astute than anything found in the United States, and that includes the good, gray (and vastly overrated) New York Times. This time, though, the Guardian sinks to simplistic analysis worthy of Fox News.

Okay, I exaggerate. Unlike Fox, Younge got quite a few things right. He’s spot on when noting that this isn’t new; Bush won the blue-collar and poor vote by roughly the same margin. So did John McCain. Younge doesn’t push it back much further, though he could. The working-class poor began to abandon the Democrats en masse in the 1960s and for many of the same reasons as today–they were seduced into thinking that social and cultural concerns were more important than power relations. In truth, though, their presence in the New Deal Coalition was  tenuous from the get-go. They could be found in big numbers among the Dixiecrats resisting civil rights after World War II and in the George Wallace campaign of 1968. Millions more voted for Nixon that year, and for Reagan in 1980 and 1984. They were perfect fodder for the come-to-Jesus snake oil salesmen of the age of cable.

Younge suggests that liberals don’t understand the poor or blue-collar workers very well. I agree, but the problem is the opposite of the contempt and condescension he notes. At this point I should reveal that I grew up working-class poor and am now a labor historian. I have been equally guilty of the liberals’ primary sin toward the lower classes: romanticism. That is to say, liberals and academics have been among the worst offenders of allowing the working class to avoid taking responsibility for self-created conditions. By casting the working class as deceived rather than deluded, as seduced rather than a willing bed partners, as victims rather than participants, lots of well-meaning folks have become enablers when they should have been critics.

Younge notes (correctly) that the Democrats don’t exactly offer an irresistible economic plan for the poor, but he and I part company when he says that viewing social class in economic terms alone is condescending. What Karl Marx observed 140 years ago is just as true today–class-consciousness is a prerequisite for class formation. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the working class anymore. Younge would have us excuse the myopia that leads workers to focus on social issues while ignoring their objective economic reality. He’d also label liberal misunderstanding a greater sin than the blockhead mentality that thinks saving the country from gay marriages, prayerless schools, or taxes, or abortion, or teachers’ unions, or [fill in a paranoid single cause here] is more important than the very objective, material realities that undergird social class. Too much of today’s working class is, as the Industrial Workers of the World labeled it in the early 20th century, the embodiment of Mr. Block–the industrial slave who thinks highly of his boss/master. (How’s that GOP trickle-down thing working out for y’all?)

I’ll play apostate. It’s time for liberals to call out such nonsense and hold those who can think accountable for their behavior. I’m all for helping those who can’t help themselves. I’m not so naïve as to think that anyone who wants a job in a nation with near-double-digit unemployment can get one. That said, a boorish lout is a boorish lout, whether he has an MBA from Harvard or carries a racist banner in a Tea Party rally in a played-out West Virginia coal town. Today’s working class is not the same one that led sit-down strikes in the 1930s; far too often it consists of Mr. Blocks willing to fan the flames of misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-government paranoia, and slogan-slinging libertarianism. Younge decries the liberal critique that the lower classes are modern-day Know Nothings. Well, dammit, they are! Myopia is a single step removed from blindness. It’s even worse; it’s a self-induced loss of sight.

Here’s another reality. The blue-collar white working class is a dying anachronism. Walter Reuther and the sit-down strikers aren’t coming back. (Today’s autoworkers are as likely to be found among global warming deniers as on a picket line.) It’s time for liberals to step out of the red state/blue state dialogue and go purple. That is, stop making excuses for idiots and, by all means, stop wasting resources trying to organize those who don’t wish to be organized. It’s time for a new progressive coalition fashioned from 21st century reality, not mid-20th century dreams. What might it look like? One only has to look at demographics and, yes, economics. A liberal-led purple coalition would be female and ethnic, not male and Anglo. It would also galvanize lower-level professionals, service-industry workers, the involuntarily disadvantaged, and contingency workers; that is, those whose paychecks and material conditions lead to class-consciousness. Get these folks organized and maybe Mr. Block will put on a pair of glasses and take a hard look around. 

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