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Donald Trump’s success with the white working class is just the latest in a long line of cases where the country’s economic elite used racial antagonism to enhance their control over workers.

Race and Class: Once More With Feeling John Peeler

Race and Class: Once More With Feeling—John Peeler

From its earliest beginnings in colonial times, the United States has been a society built on the twin foundations of capitalism and racism. Racism divided the workers among themselves and let the owners keep on making money. This is nothing new: countless historians have made this point, perhaps most eloquently in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

Precisely for this reason, the United States has never had a major workers’ party like British Labour or the German Social Democrats. But beginning with the absorption of the Populists by the Democrats in 1896, the Democratic Party began to approach being such a party. This became particularly notable in the New Deal years of the 1930s, as Democratic policies promoted labor unions, provided jobs to the jobless, and established Social Security as the foundation for a decent living in retirement. Through the 1960s, this identification of Democrats with the working class persisted.

Yet, the old Democratic Party actually had its foundation in the segregated South, where economic and political elites held sway from before the Civil War, promoting racial prejudice as the key to keeping the blacks down. The price for Southern support for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs was the exclusion of blacks. For example, domestic workers and farm workers were initially not covered by Social Security. Labor unions themselves were often racially exclusionary.

African Americans have been challenging their subordination since the abolitionist movement before the Civil War. This challenge gained new weight with the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1909, and the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The response of the political system (beginning with Eisenhower, and particularly under Kennedy and Johnson) was to implement, by court decisions, legislation and administrative action, protections for African Americans (and other racial and ethnic minorities).

Democrats, particularly in this election, became exclusively identified with blacks and other minorities, not to mention culturally subversive groups like feminists, abortion-rights activists, LGTBQ activists—the list goes on.

Here’s where elements of the white working class had misgivings. The New Deal had provided benefits for all (whites). These new measures were instead providing benefits for a select (black) subset of the people. Segregationist governor George Wallace and Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon each appealed successfully to white workers, and thus began a long migration of those people toward the Republican Party. That migration is now essentially complete, with the South as solidly Republican as it ever was Democratic. And as this election showed, the Northern white working class has shifted decisively as well.

What underlies this process is the reality of deindustrialization in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan and Ohio, depriving most industrial workers of high-paying jobs that could provide a middle class living. With stagnant or falling incomes and few prospects for improvement, white workers resent programs like affirmative action, which they see as discriminating against them, and in favor of people they don’t like and don’t think are deserving.

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And the Democrats, particularly in this election, became exclusively identified with blacks and other minorities, not to mention culturally subversive groups like feminists, abortion-rights activists, LGTBQ activists—the list goes on. The party actually became, in this election, the champion for America’s cultural and educational elite, too. So far has it come from the old party of the working class.

Can the Democrats speak to the white working class without betraying their commitments to minorities, women, gays and other disadvantaged minorities? Yes, but it won’t be easy.

The key is a focus on economic issues. We need to break decisively with the economic model that holds that, since free trade will benefit everyone, on average, that we don’t need to worry about those (industrial workers, coal miners, small farmers) who will be hurt. We need to positively reward companies that keep plants open, and seriously penalize those who move jobs overseas for cheaper labor. Labor, indeed must have a major place at the table in negotiating trade deals, and that means we should be actively promoting and protecting labor unions. A big part of the economic decline of American workers is the erosion of unions.

Much of the country has been undercut by the evolution of the economy since the 1960s: farming regions, mining regions, the old industrial centers, the inner cities. Prosperity has gone to a shrinking minority, mostly in the coastal metropolises. We need to take specific measures: education, employment, alternative incomes, that will benefit everyone in need, not just minorities.

To right our economy we need to shift income from the top 1 percent to those in need, so that more people have purchasing power, and so that our democracy is not distorted by the concentration of wealth. We need to tax the rich. In particular, we need to put Social Security on a sound footing by making all income subject to Social Security taxes, ending the inexcusably regressive concentration of taxes on those of lower income.

Similarly, the prospect of the butchering of Obamacare by Trump and congressional Republicans should allow us to make the case for Medicare for all as less costly and more able to provide coverage for all, than any tortured alternative devised by Republicans who are in the pockets of the insurance companies.

Putting these proposals front and center should let us get the attention of the white working class, while also keeping our commitments to women and minorities. Trump will prove to be a fraud. We should be in position to take advantage. It’s the economy, stupid!

john peeler

John Peeler