Last week, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Joan C. Williams, titled "What So Many People Don't Get About the U.S. Working Class."
Williams' article is one of many left-wing think pieces designed to explore just what went wrong during the 2016 presidential election. What stands out about it is that it attempts to frame the strong current of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and cognitive dissonance in Western societies as something that the political left just doesn't get.
I propose that Williams' article is best read as a list of reasons that the Democratic Party cannot pander to the misdirected anger of the WWC. Her piece consists of six sections: a descriptive introduction, followed by five headers that provide pithy guidelines for politicians attempting to woo the WWC. Herein, I will focus on the two headers I find most problematic. In subsequent articles, I will add to her observations by presenting what I believe to be the more concerning patterns behind Trump's support, and discuss what might lie ahead for a fractured and dysfunctional political left in Canada, Europe, and the United States.
"If You Want to Connect with White Working-Class Voters, Place Economics at the Center"
This segment focuses on how Democrats have lost the WWC by focusing on "cultural issues" -- such as transgender washrooms -- rather than creating well-paying blue-collar jobs. Williams describes how the Democratic Party failed to communicate a plan to get back the jobs lost due to the de-unionization of the American workforce and the expansion of global trade and investment agreements.
While the economic concerns of the WWC are certainly justifiable, placing them in front of social inclusion cannot be an option for any leftist party that earnestly wants to pursue social change. For both moral and strategic reasons, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ+ community, intersectional feminists, and a variety of other movements must be a prominent part of the political left. It is incredibly cynical and unfair to expect minority groups to show up and vote for you simply because they have no viable alternative. They have - for the most part - been incredible allies to the left, and that cannot be taken for granted.
What is more, the WWC has vociferously denounced two key (often competing) movements that are essential to any attempt to revive the middle class economy in the 21st century: environmentalism and organized labour. How could the political left woo the WWC with the promise of high-paying employment, without simultaneously ignoring the unions that secured those jobs in the first place, and brushing aside the environmentalists who seek to ensure that new employment is sustainable? Rationally speaking, the three should go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, the political right has been eminently successful at framing them as diametrically opposed, and the WWC appear to have taken the bait hook, line, and sinker.
"Avoid the Temptation to Write Off Blue-Collar Resentment as Racism"
Williams admits that "Economic resentment has fueled racial anxiety that, in some Trump supporters (and Trump himself), bleeds into open racism." She cautions, however, that writing off WWC resentment as racism is dangerous "intellectual comfort food."
I fail to see how voting for a candidate who has explicitly advanced racist views and policies isn't, at the very least, tacit acceptance of racism. While I agree that not all Trump supporters are racist, none of them can care about racism that much.
What this election has proven is that, once again, indifference is all that is required to embolden those among us who wish to express their anger against those who do not look, think, or act like they do.
I also take issue with Williams' characterization of the reaction to police brutality. Williams argues that the political left should be more deferential to the police because the profession is seen as an embodiment of WWC values and aspirations. She proposes that she, too, might make poor choices if she was forced to make split-second, life and death decisions.
This statement is an extreme distortion of a very legitimate critique of police in Western societies.
The issue here is not police who are forced to react quickly and decisively to save their lives or others. The issue is police who, time and again, escalate situations that are not immediately life threatening. It is increasingly militarized police departments that systemically target racialized communities. Fundamentally, there exist very legitimate questions surrounding whose interests the police serve, and whether or not they are ultimately accountable for their actions.
These are not rhetorical statements designed to incite anger toward the police or denigrate the rule of law. They are observations drawn from Department of Justice inquiries into police departments in Baltimore, Chicago, Ferguson, and Philadelphia.
So forgive me if I do not support going easy on the police for the sake of the WWC. Yes, ending police brutality is more complicated than engaging in name-calling and pursuing convictions for guilty officers. Finding a solution will require us all to ask profound and often difficult questions about the role of police in our society. What will not help, however, is pandering to some fantasy about the police representing all that was once right with America.
While this seems to paint a hopeless picture, I believe that there are ways ahead. What we don't need is a further-diluted Democratic Party courting the very voters who just traded away the rights of millions of people for a fool's promise of economic growth. Rather, we need an open conversation about what was really behind Trump's support, and a consolidated left that can do justice to the promise of hope and change.
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