Yes, the Left and the Democratic Party Need to Start Listening, but Not to the Same People They’ve Been Centring for Decades

So…it happened. Donald Trump is the United States President-elect. There will be a “President Trump”.

In the last few weeks before the election many friends (and almost all the commentators) had been telling me “It’s okay, Clinton is up in the polls. Her ground game is going to vastly outperform Trump’s. Even some Republicans are going to vote Clinton.” I was hopeful, almost assumed Clinton was going to win, but I knew it was very possible she wouldn’t. Being a white woman living on the Pacific Coast of Canada, who lives and works in labour / academia / activist world, my progressive bubble is almost all-encompassing, and at times opaque. But campaigning in election after election teaches you that it’s dangerous to think about elections through the lens of who “deserves” to win. I also know that however racist and misogynist our society seems to me to be, it’s way worst than I can see. I’m not necessarily reminded of the extent of that racism every time I leave my house, open a magazine, or listen to the radio. I often recognize the racism that surrounds me, but I can not. I mostly have the option to not see it. Several individuals of colour have written eloquently about why it’s problematic for white people to keep expressing their shock at Trump’s win, and what it means for the state of racism in America, so I won’t do that here. If you just want the quick video tutorial, check out SNL’s apt sketch.

In fact there’s been great (and less great) analysis of all kinds about what happened on Tuesday, in the months prior, and in the days since. Despite existing in said bubble, there’s been a significant amount of debate and disagreement in my social networks. I’ve been very frustrated by some of the conversations I’ve participated in, and I know I’ve frustrated others. Many of these conversations have been multifaceted, discussing everything from the nation’s uteruses, to the horrifying, countless hate attacks that have been perpetrated over the last week, to what went wrong tactically, and how the Democrats need to change to win in 2020. At times it makes sense for those conversations to happen in one fluid discussion or article. And at times it really doesn’t. Walking into (either metaphorically or physically – I’ve seen both) a conversation among a few people of colour discussing the racist taunting their kids are encountering at school to remind them that this whole thing is the fault of the “Democratic establishment” is a jerk move, no matter how legitimate your analysis may be. Hell, Eli Gold, Barry Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, and all 10 season’s worth of America’s Got Talent winners could have come to you through divine intervention with the exact perfect path to 2020 victory, and you still have no business barging into that conversation to share it.

Not every conversation about Trump’s electoral victory is about what went wrong this year, or beating him in 2020. A lot of them aren’t about electoral politics at all. And trying to make every single one of them about rebuilding the Democratic Party, tactical missteps, or how Bernie would have won the general if the primary hadn’t been stolen from him, is just plain rude, especially if you’re not one of the people deeply and personally impacted by Trump’s victory. Millions of people living in America are currently terrified for their safety, or whether their family is going to be torn apart by deportation, or whether they’re going to lose their health insurance, or whether their body is even considered their own anymore, or whether the ways in which they are oppressed on a daily basis just got legitimized in a way that will embolden the people who’ve long thought of them as less than. If you’re not one of these people, now is a really good time to listen.

Yes, most of us (including lots of us who don’t live in America) are deeply invested in building towards a progressive victory in 2020, but the tactical decisions about how to win back the House and Senate in 2018, and the White House in 2020 are not the most important decisions to make at the moment. The safety of literally millions of people is what’s important. We need to decide what we’re doing to support the safety, wellbeing, and liberty of those who are most vulnerable right now. And to do that many of us white progressives need to shut up and listen for a change, rather than attacking those speaking about what they need to feel safe.

A lot of people are invested in talking strategy right now, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we’re not turning conversations about grief and safety into conversations about voter turnout, comms policy, and everyone’s favourite pseudo-socialist. While some conversations about Trump’s victory have no place for strategy and need to focus on safety and justice, I believe all conversations on strategies for moving forward politically need to include a discussion of safety and justice. So on that, I have a few thoughts.

Why do I keep seeing article after article telling me the Democratic “establishment” should have listened more to white working class people? Many writers more eloquent than me have pointed out that we’ve already all been doing plenty of that.

Why aren’t we hearing that leadership should have been listening to black working class people? Or Latinx people (30% of them voted for Trump – what are Democrats not listening to here?). Katie Grimes wrote an excellent piece (the only one I’ve seen) pointing out what should be obvious to all of us: “There Is No Such Thing as ‘the White Working Class’”. I recommend reading her short piece, but one of her key points is that both politically and empirically speaking, there is a working class, not several working classes, segregated by race. While this is how both parties – I’d argue especially the Democrats – treat the working class, that doesn’t make it true. I’m not suggesting that people of different races don’t have different experiences of being working class, but the focus on the “white working class” falsely constructs this entity, while arguing that the majority of white Trump voters didn’t vote for racism and misogyny, but voted for better jobs. Don’t working class black, and brown, and Asian, etc. working class people care about better jobs? Why does discourse about the voting habits of various populations of colour almost always focus solely on their race as a lens for decision-making? The implication of these constructions is that race trumps class for voters of colour, but that white people who overwhelming voted Trump just did so out of concern for their lost jobs. Either that logic is flawed, or the analysis is coming from a basis of erasing racialization from the minds and frameworks of white Americans. And if the Trump campaign, and now this last week, has shown us anything, it’s that white people in America aren’t like your co-worker Becky – white America most definitely “sees” race.

This election and its aftermath is yet another conversation in recent public discourse in which we’re encouraged to listen more to the pain and struggles of older, white men. I am all for listening to the individual struggles of older, white men. Some of my best friends are older, white men. (Seriously. My friend and dating pool tends to skew 10 – 20 years older than me.) I imagine that it’s challenging to feel like the world you’ve been taught for 40+ years is right and just may not be that right and just after all. It must be challenging to feel like some of the immense power you’ve held your entire life (that you probably didn’t even notice you had because it was so naturalized) may be slipping away in ways you don’t necessarily understand. All people have the right to feel their feelings. Most of us who want to eradicate the violent social hierarchies in our society aren’t suggesting that experience isn’t likely to be disorienting and challenging. But that doesn’t mean we want to hear about it over, and over, and over again in public discourse, especially not in ways that suggest that these men (or white people, or straight people, etc., whatever the case may be) are experiencing an injustice. Because the equalization of social and material power is not an injustice. Not even to the people who are losing some of the disproportionate power they have / had.

And it’s this that makes me nervous about the direction I see a lot of no doubt well-meaning, mostly white people pushing the direction of the Democratic Party revampi. The push to focus even more on the concerns of the “white working class” suggests an even further centring of white people’s concerns in Democratic organising and policy. The voter turnout numbers illustrate that Donald Trump won the presidency with fewer votes than McCain and Romney lost their respective elections with. The Republican turnout was steady – it’s the Democrats who stayed home. I think it’s fair to say that Trump didn’t win this election, Clinton lost it. A move to ramp up pandering to the “white working class” not only frustrates me from a justice perspective, I don’t see any reason to think it will actually work.

As so many people have pointed out, including several of the authors I’ve linked to, Trump’s support isn’t actually focused among poor whites, which is what many people think of when they hear “white working class”. Joan C. Williams’s article “What So Many People Don’t Get About the Working Class” (she forgot to include the word “white” in the title, as that’s all she actually talks about in her piece), does a good job of parsing this common misconception. Clinton’s progressive policies of a $15 minimum wage, and paid sick and maternity leave aren’t things that the average Trump voter cares about, because they don’t work the kinds of jobs where legislating these bare minimums would change their circumstances. Williams foregrounds the role of gender and patriarchy in many white, working class men’s frustrations about their job prospects and the decline of American manufacturing, and other previously well paid jobs traditionally held by men with little education. I don’t doubt she’s correct in pointing out that a majority of these men don’t want jobs in the food, service, retail, and care sectors. Jobs in these sectors are often called “pink collar,” given that they’re dominated by women. They could also accurately be called “racialized collar” jobs (I know, not as catchy), as these are industries that often employ black and brown men, as well as women of all races. Of course men who have historically accessed well paying, unionized jobs with little education don’t want to take jobs that are low paid, and often have little security and job protections. It is critical to understand these facts, but that doesn’t mean the Democratic party should simply pander to a group that’s been historically granted disproportionate economic, social, and personal privilege because to do otherwise and encourage them to take jobs in growing, rather than dying, sectors will hurt their “manliness”.

The fact that “good jobs,” as Trump puts it, are disappearing, and “bad jobs” are the ones replacing them can’t simply be blamed on free trade. Hey, I was raised on anti-globalization, second only to feminism, it’s what I cut my activist teeth on. But re-introducing trade tariffs of the nature Trump has suggested isn’t going to bring those jobs back. And, to be frank, free trade is not even necessarily the main reason those jobs are gone. Automation and an uptake in throw away North American culture that allows people to purchase a significantly greater amount of (poor quality) goods, for which the goal is to simply make them as cheaply as possible, are also largely to blame for those high paying, low education jobs leaving or disappearing. Work landscapes have always changed with technology and society. The reason the jobs currently available to Americans in abundance aren’t well paid and secure isn’t that the work itself is different – it’s that the economic, social, and political conditions are different.

The majority of those great manufacturing jobs used to be filled by white men. The people doing the same kinds of care, food, service and retail work in the sectors that are currently growing used to be paid badly, and are now paid even worst, when you adjust for inflationii. This work has never been properly valued because it’s feminized, and, in many cases, racialized. These sectors haven’t been unionized at nearly the same rates as manufacturing and other traditionally men-dominated sectors. As labour power has eroded over the last decades under political, economic, and ideological attacks, union density has shrunken, and workers in all sectors have seen their real wages decline, while corporate profits and productivity have risen dramatically.

The answer to the jobs crisis in America is not to scapegoat migrants and wish really hard it was pre-1975. What we need to be doing is building solidarity and labour power across the entirety of the working class – one that includes poor and low income people – to turn these “bad jobs” into “good ones”. The way to do that is to build unions and political power for labour, and tackle the racism and sexism that makes it acceptable in our society to treat people doing this work badly.

The problem with indulging white male fantasies about bringing those jobs back, as Trump does, isn’t just that it’s not going to happen, but also that coded in those fantasies is a demand for a return to a social hierarchy in which white men get to take a much larger than proportionate share of the wealth and security in society. To me, this is the most dangerous message I’ve been observing on the Left over this election cycle: the romanticization of a yesterdecade in which the “working class” (but actually mostly just working white men) enjoy a level of individual wealth that is inextricably grounded in the oppression and exploitation of people of colour, Indigenous people, and women and non-binary peoples. Suggesting the Democratic party didn’t sufficiently indulge that fantasy, and assuage that nostalgia is a slap in the face to those of us who didn’t (or wouldn’t have) benefitted from that social order. It’s also just an ineffective strategy – over the last few decades the Republican Party’s proven itself to far out perform the Democrats when it comes to pandering to these demographics.

I don’t know what 2020 is going to look like. Maybe Trump will be gone by then, a victim of an ambitious, but risky hair replacement medical trial, and President Pence will be traumatizing the nation and those abroad as Commander-in-Chief (a perhaps scarier thought). One can at least hope Trump will be serving time in prison for child rape (memo for Mr. Trump: don’t forget, after you sort out who’s going to teach you the basics of US government, and get your transition team to stop firing each other, you’ve got that pesky child rape case to deal with in December!). Maybe Pence will have some kind of crisis of conscious and decide it’s not up to him to enact regime change in the nation’s uteruses, or electro shock the gay out of America’s youth, and he’ll have resigned to live out his life in penance. But barring any of those beautiful fantasies, the Democratic Party will likely be fighting for the White House again with a duo defined by their shared love of hating other people, and loving capitalism. If that ends up being the case, I hope dearly that the Democratic Party has figured out how to talk to, and appeal to Americans. And not just the wounded white cohort that’s decided 200+ years of inequality, and enjoying unearned wealth and privilege wasn’t enough.

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i A note: While this piece is focused on the US election results, and an American context, I believe there’s a lot to learn for local and Canadian political organising from both the election results, and the ensuing themes of Left analysis.

ii Certain types of health care work are a possible exception to the downward trend in wages and benefits in these sectors. Relatively strong union density, and greater numbers of men in front line health care work seem to have allowed wages in these sectors to hold steady or rise.

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