Class Identity, Intersectionality, and the Failure of Democratic Framing

(originally posted November 29th, 2016)

Immediately after the election came a string of apologies on social media, regrets expressed to ethnic minorities, queer minorities, women, and the occasional reference to the severely impoverished. All these groups will truly suffer under a Republican presidency, as they historically have every time before. The flaw in these apologies, however, comes not in their inclusion, but their omission. For so many of these statements from white middle class men comes a qualifier, “I know I won’t suffer much in the coming administration-“ A fallacious statement. The middle class will feel harsh pain under conservative leadership. Perhaps this self-putdown comes from a need for modesty. It’s needless humility – economic concerns are as valid as any other.

So why the guilt shown by so many liberals on that front? It’s rooted in the denial of class as an identity. Finding the cause of this denial runs easy – while one cannot change one’s gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, one can presumably change one’s social status, especially in light of the American Dream. But class is only merely a status in an environment where social mobility is empowered. That empowerment is largely absent in this current country. Most blue collar families now stay blue collar generation after generation after generation, thanks to the steep climb of education costs, the closed networks of success, the evaporation of available jobs, and the weight of inflation. I’m reminded of a line in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, “Letter to My Son,” where he mourns African-Americans blocked access to a world of “white fences and green lawns,” one he admits is a world “beamed into our television sets.” Simple fact is, that world has also been inaccessible for many middle class whites since the 1970s. The widening of the economic divide goes unaddressed in media except in short chirps of “blue collar workers haven’t felt the benefit of the recovery,” as if the white middle class knew some recent boom and haven’t been facing a steady, linear decline.

This misunderstanding communicates clearly in the tone of many post-election liberal editorials. “White blue collar” is thrown around with a level of disdain, as if the two labels equate to privilege plus as opposed to privilege paired with counter-privilege. That trickles into analysis of the Democratic Party loss through heckling of “Bernie bros” and “college kid puritans,” class as an abstract concern of the academic or the privileged, as opposed to the “real” victims. Implicit in that analysis, however, is the denial of intersectionality between class and the other more-discussed identities, the idea that one cannot be queer, female, or non-white and still suffer under middle class disempowerment policies as long as their other identities are addressed. To be completely fair, Bernie Sanders’ immediate written statement to the Ferguson protests was tone deaf and focused solely on the community’s economic concerns when it should’ve given more attention to police corruption as an ingrained institution, especially in light of successful African-Americans like Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson being arbitrarily harassed by police. But Hillary Clinton’s attempt to capitalize on that error is telling – “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” No, but the inverse can also be said – if body cameras were placed on all police officers tomorrow, would that get a black woman in Flint a job? And that myopic attitude continues even in the wake of Clinton’s defeat, in the continued exclusive focus on ethnic and gender victimhood.

Perhaps that comes from Donald Trump never boasting over grabbing a construction contractor in the crotch, of saying Bakersfield needs law and order, of appointing a vice president who wants to electrocute field hands for not being agriculture business giants. Fair. But look also at the flaw in the Democratic Party’s campaigning. The black girls in advertisements, championed for becoming the next scientist, the next CEO, the next president… and not so much for being the next desk clerk, the next firefighter. For while the Republican Party has been defined by its excessive catering to the rich since Reconstruction, the Democratic Party has morphed into a party beholden to entrepreneurs, who value only the innovators and never the common man, who only care about your black daughter if she starts a business, and if she stays in the regular workforce… well, maybe she should’ve tried harder. The result is that the Democrats offer no counterbalance to the Republican’s dismissal of class politics. And so those issues go unaddressed, which has led to a dangerous political climate.

On social media come interviews of conservative voters, frequently met by boos from the liberal crowd, who whisper with hisses about Indians and the Chinese taking their jobs. Viewing these statements as examples of white superiority risks the superficial. To be explicit, these statements are racist and are unacceptable interpretations of reality. But these very voters will exclaim they’re not racist if challenged. How can they reach that conclusion? Because their fears are bound in real class concerns, concerns over globalization replacing a society of individuals with a society of consumers. This fear doesn’t belong only to America. Around the world, a revolt against globalization grows, all too frequently manifesting in nationalism. Brexit. The resurgence of Le Pen. Erdogan’s veering to the right. Frustrations in Japan, South Korea, Italy, Myanmar, so on, so forth. There’s an intense fear of losing cultural identity, and it’s real. Even from the mid-2000s, there’s a clip of Johnny Lydon riding around London, bemoaning the replacement of national landmarks with unremarkable and modern bank buildings. The erasure of nationality resonates as an erasure of self as a beautiful Victorian home is replaced with a business park, the street vendors in Singapore get gutted in favor of McDonald’s, a fiberglass monstrosity gets placed across from the Tower of London, marring tradition.

The correct target for this aggression should be corporations, who want to dissolve culture in favor of appealing more universally and therefore more easily mass-producible, who feel no connection to a community when their only interest in location lies in how cheap the labor is, who see smaller businesses only as one more thing to acquire and consolidate. But it’s a target that the middle class cringes at hitting because to do so would be to admonish the rich. When the myth that one day anyone can be rich so permeates a society, to attack one’s future status seems sacrilegious. And so, globalization ceases to be a product of corporatism and instead gets blamed on multiculturalism. Companies aren’t breaking the laws by using what’s essentially slave labor to get around minimum wages, ha, no. No, Mexicans are taking our jobs. An Indian restaurant can go out of business just as quickly as any non-chain hamburger joint, but in the meantime, that’s a job where our white offspring can’t cook at. The symptoms are conflated with the disease.

Is this truly addressed by the Democratic Party? No. Look at the handling of Latino immigrant labor. The Republican Party’s ideal for the situation is a stringent yet laxly enforced border policy. Companies can collect all the desperate Hispanic refugees they want, but if the workers ever cry out for a higher wage, they’ll get threatened with deportation, and so these companies profit off of criminal work conditions. What was the Democratic Party’s response to this? To better enforce the stringent policy as a disincentive for companies to continue hiring illegally, thus forcing Republican Party donors to begrudgingly greenlight immigration reform, allowing for another voting base for the Democrats to pull from for the favor of liberation. In the meantime, of course, Hispanic families are ripped to shreds, all in the favor of the long-term, the power struggle. The alternative of approaching it differently, of working so that work conditions are heavily bolstered, that caring for any worker, be they immigrant or resident, is an investment as opposed to an option, never gets pushed. Lowered premiums, not universal healthcare. Conditionally free college, not student debt relief. Once more, the Democrats are here to help Hispanics, but God help you if you also happen to be poor while Hispanic.

Of course, working class rhetoric feels staid and one-dimensional these days. The exoticness of Marxism terminology is, of course, verboten thanks to the agitprop efforts of the mid-Twentieth Century. There is talk of “helping the steel worker” from Democrats, yes. But while the Democratic Party promises to cares about the working class, their speech will never differentiate very much from the Republican Party’s same promises. All depend on the idea of “you will be well-cared for once you obtain the American Dream of being rich.” In the meantime, though? No promises. And that’s what many white blue collar workers heard – a bunch of promises to people who weren’t them.

Naturally, Donald Trump and the Republicans can’t deliver on any promises for the middle class because they didn’t make any other than vague outlines of “keeping people safe” and “making businesses grow through deregulation.” Neither a wall on the border, a bonus to the NSA, or a dissolution of the EPA will suddenly reverse the trend against regular workers, obviously. But neither did “all of Obama’s progress.” While Obama’s progress even for other minorities can be doubted, to claim the middle class bloomed under him is flat-out disingenuous. The economy recovered, but mostly for the rich. Job openings started reappearing, but with the same wages as before in a more expensive world. The promises of wage increases were hemmed and hawed about by his endorsed candidate’s campaign. The healthcare reform that admittedly was bounds better than the previous status quo nonetheless stalled due to its over-dependence on the whims of insurance companies. “It’s the economy, stupid,” was Bill Clinton’s slogan in 1992, but apparently, that only applied to Republican economies. The roll-back of Glass-Steagall, the lack of safeguards for NAFTA, the tech bubble that burst in 2000… all somebody else’s problem. And now, second act, same as the first. All the “progress” of leaving towns to die by backtracking when faced with any opposition from the other side of the aisle feels absurd. “Progress stymied by obstructionist Republicans,” many liberals say. But that’s not what they campaigned with last year – a bunch of talk of pussy grabbing that focused on one figure, instead of pointing fingers at a monolith of stimulus-prevention. “Obama is popular, therefore, what we are doing is working.” And yet, a black president’s popularity doesn’t translate into a victory for the next campaign, and suddenly, “This country is so racist.” Then who were all these polls gushing about, a fantasy white Obama?

Yes, many Trump supporters did vote for Obama in 2008, saw the fires of Baltimore, and turned against the Democrats. Yes, it’s easy to leave it at that. Yes, it is racist. At the same time, this resentment isn’t just based on, “The people around me are getting browner.” It’s based on, “The people around me are getting browner and throwing a fit while getting more promises than me.” But none of us are getting true promises. Class identity got ignored. The intersectionality between class and gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation was dismissed. People frustrated at having no jobs are blamed for wanting a job and wanting to believe a business man can get them a job, as if the Muslim woman on the train getting screamed at to go back to Syria doesn’t also need a raise. The discourse liberals are pursuing right now not only will fail them in 2018 and 2020, it will kill their chance at elections, but that’s not the worst part. More so than any partisan horseracing, this country needs serious reform. America fought fascism in the 1940s not through incrementalism, but under our most socialist president ever. If citizens in this country want to boom, want to reverse the tide worldwide towards nationalism, want to stop regressing into a stagnant and economically volatile state, they need a public who demands promises from politicians and expect them to keep them. To decry populism is easy because liberals don’t see it in themselves. But look at the DAPL protests. Those protests are rooted in nationalism, in populism, in a push back against globalization. They fight for land control and cultural self-actualization. These are similar concerns as can be found in a Trump rally. This is an energy that transcends party lines and can be used to transform this country. But tuning out anyone who didn’t vote the “correct” way, hearing only the shouted harshness of their words and not the silent weeping hidden behind them, and extending comfort to someone for being Arab but not for being saddled with thirty thousand in student loan debt, all of that goes nowhere. To hope feverishly for the death of white America is to ignore the fact that America for everyone is dying, and the Democratic Party ignored that and called everything fine. Anyone who buys into that is just as delusional as the Trump supporters they so villainize. Hillary Clinton lost for a reason. Complaints about the Electoral College ignore that, imperfect system aside, it offers a snapshot of how much of the country’s interior is getting left behind. To turn one’s noses up at them is to be dragged to doom with them.

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