Today’s Left Can’t Afford to Ignore the White Working Class

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John Judis is an old ’60s leftist who watched his generation’s revolution burn out and die in a furious backlash, and he’s worried that today’s generation of leftists are making many of the same mistakes. In “A Warning From the ’60s Generation,” he outlines the three biggest trouble spots he sees in today’s revolutionaries:

First, many on the left — and many more-moderate liberals as well — attribute Trump’s victory in 2016 and white working-class reluctance to support Democrats entirely or primarily to “white supremacy” or “white privilege.” They dismiss flyover Americans who voted for Trump as irredeemable — even though there is evidence that many supporters of Barack Obama backed Trump in 2016, and that many Trump voters cast ballots for Democrats in 2018.

….Second, the left is again dividing into identity groups, each of which feels justified in elevating its concerns above others….While activists focused on identity politics have, like their predecessors from the ’60s, made perfectly reasonable demands — for instance, an end to police brutality, or equal wages for men and women — they have also made extreme demands that display an indifference to building a political majority. Some have backed reparations for slavery — an idea rejected by broad majorities of the electorate, most of whom are descended from immigrants who came to America after the Civil War. Other groups have demanded “open borders,” defying a majority of Americans who think the country should be able to decide who to admit as citizens and who will be able to enjoy the rights and benefits of being an American.

Third, many of these demands and strategies are accompanied by a quasi-religious adherence to special language and gestures that echo the experience of the ’60s….At the Democratic Socialists of America convention I attended over the summer in Atlanta, delegates identified themselves on their name tags, and when they spoke, by their preferred pronoun (“he,” “she” or “they”) and signaled their approval by twirling their hands. Someone who used the colloquial “guys” to refer to the audience was sternly rebuked. There were charges of “ableism” and of “triggering” due to loud talking. These kinds of moral stances are fine for a church congregation, but not for a political organization that wants to win a majority of voters. The reality is that 80 percent or more of Americans who wandered into such a gathering would think they were on another planet.

Some of this might be overblown. I was surprised a few weeks ago when I was watching a bog standard CBS courtroom drama and one of the lawyers had a conversation with the judge about her client’s desire to be referred to as “they.” CBS is the official network of heartland folks who are turning gray, so if they figure this is OK then maybe it’s not as off-putting as Judis thinks.

Nitpicks aside, though, I pretty much agree with him. His main point is that his generation tried but failed to form a broad coalition that included the white working class, and that led to Nixon, Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and now Trump. If today’s generation wants to succeed where his failed, they need to show some genuine understanding that the white working class—some of it, anyway—has legitimate economic grievances that are pretty similar to those of the college-educated urban dwellers who mostly lead the Resistance. A real lefty would understand this at a very deep, gut level.

This is probably Bernie Sanders’ biggest strength: he really does want to build a wide political coalition. I think he has weaknesses that will prevent him from doing that, but he’s at least showing the way. Regardless of whether or not you like him, the rest of us should pay attention.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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