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Wokeness and the American Working Class

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Recent attacks by some Democrats on other Democrats for being too “woke” have revealed complicated class dynamics and a certain professional class blindness that afflicts the Democratic Party.

The standard charge against Democratic wokeness is that it is turning off working-class voters by advocating (or even considering) defunding the police, open borders for immigration, and critical race theory. Few Democratic politicians actually embrace these views, but they are still scored for not running away from them. Conversely, woke Democrats conclude that their critics want to pander to white racism that the woke see as endemic in American society, and especially in the white working class.

A large portion, probably a majority, does not recognize itself in this conventional line-up of political positions.

In this debate the working class is defined as all those who do not have at least a bachelor’s degree and the middle class, as everybody who does. Often, even though everybody would get it right on a true-false test, the working class is assumed to be all white and the Democratic Party no longer the party of the working class. In fact, fifty-eight percent of the coalition that elected Joe Biden was working class—thirty-two percent white and twenty-six percent workers of color. This multi-colored working class tends to share a political perspective that does not fit into a standard left-right, liberal-conservative spectrum. A large portion, probably a majority, does not recognize itself in this conventional line-up of political positions.

Though research has shown this over and over again, middle-class professionals continue over and over again to try to fit working-class voters into what is a political line-up peculiar to the thirty-six percent of adults with college educations.

Though not universal, a characteristic working-class political perspective across all races combines a strong-to-moderate social and cultural conservatism with a solid populist economic progressivism. Within this general orientation against broad social and cultural change but for progressive economic change, there are an even wider range of political views that do not fall easily into a left-right spectrum. Social conservatives are not necessarily conservative on all social issues, and economic populists line up differently in relation to different economic policies. As a recent study by Jacobin’s Center for Working-Class Politics found: “Ideological consistency across issues is relatively exceptional and tends to be concentrated among the well-educated and wealthy.” (8)

“Ideological consistency across issues is relatively exceptional and tends to be concentrated among the well-educated and wealthy.” (8)

The wildly diverse ideological inconsistency among working-class voters is generally ignored among pollsters, pundits, and the politically conscious in favor of simple racial-class stereotypes that are not completely inaccurate but that obscure important realities and the potentials within them. For example, most black workers abhor the idea of defunding the police, most Latino and Latina voters are skeptical about illegal immigration, and most white workers do not think they are racists and would be ashamed of themselves if they were. Majorities or large minorities, however, support rigorous police reform, comprehensive immigration reform, and prohibitions against racial discrimination of any kind. These are not fully progressive positions, but neither are they fully socially conservative. On economics, on the other hand, majority working-class views range from mildly liberal to well to the left of Joe Biden, especially on taxing the rich.

Somewhere in this ideological stew there is a sweet spot that Democratic activists and operatives either can’t find or aren’t even looking for because they are isolated in professional middle-class venues at work and at home. In those restricted environments the left-right spectrum is the only one that makes sense, and it guides their thinking away from the rich complexity of a messily multicultural American working class. The actually existing working class has much more positive political potential than either woke or anti-woke Democrats can apparently see.

Featured photo: White wooden houses. Credit: Taylor Wilcox.
Photo in post: FedEx driver in New York City. Credit: Viktoria Kubiaki

Bridging the Divide
Cover image of Bridging the Divide.
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Jack Metzgar is Professor Emeritus at Roosevelt University. He is author of Striking Steel.

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