We traditionally think of the Republican/Democrat divide in terms of the “ruling class” and the “working class,” or “the 1% v. the 99%.” Democrats are thought to faithfully represent the interests of the working class. The Republicans, carrying the torch for the richest of the rich, manage to stay competitive by dubiously securing votes from the working class. They do this by exploiting the economic ignorance and racial prejudices of low information working class voters. While there is a significant amount of truth to this model’s description of Republicans, there is a wrinkle to the makeup of the Democratic Party that this model neglects to mention.
This wrinkle is the fact that the “99%” actually has multiple classes within it. The main division is between the “upper middle” class and various “lower” classes. At about 10–15% of the population, the upper middle class is made up of doctors, lawyers, university professors, various skilled professionals, and owners of successful local businesses around the country. These people don’t need universal hearth care, they just need their excellent employer provided health care to have its cost increases managed and they need to not be dropped from health care rolls for preexisting conditions. Their kids don’t need tuition free college, they just need manageable interest rates for their financial aid. They get generous amounts of paid vacation, they don’t need it provided on a mandatory basis.
The Democratic Party, in all its incrementalism, tweaking the status quo with modest policy adjustments, represents this class.
Then there are the lower classes. Making up 85–90% percent of the population, this group is the true “working class.” This is the most diverse group in the country, it ranges from “middle class” semi-skilled office workers to truly “lower class” day laborers. While some members live more comfortably than others, this group, by and large, exchanges its labor for just enough money to get by. Their jobs have few, if any, benefits. These people would greatly benefit from policies like universal health care, tuition free public college, mandatory paid time off, and many of the other worker-empowering policies, funded by progressive tax rates, that are standard procedure for most of the developed world outside of the United States.
This class has no political party.
The divide between the top 1% and the top 10% makes our political system look competitive, and there are legitimate diverging interests between those two classes. That said, in practice, our two political parties split the vote for the working class, then both ignore it in favor of their primary constituencies. The simple reality of this dynamic is that the majority of the population’s interests go unrepresented. While Republican members of the working class are exploited by their low-information status into voting for policies that benefit the top 1%, the Democratic members of this group allow themselves to be browbeaten into supporting policies that largely benefit the top 10% based on the dubious supposition that those policies are “better than Republican policies.” With one half of the working class deceived into voting Republican and the other half treated like it has no choice but to vote Democrat, 90% of the population has its interests treated like an afterthought.
Bernie’s entire campaign was an attempt to change that.
Things weren’t always so bleak for the working class. It used to be that a significant portion of this class, at times more than half, was solidly considered “middle class.” That strong correlation between the working class and the middle class was once the hallmark of a healthy society. It’s also true that there is a shared economic interest between the upper middle and working classes. At a fundamental level, both exchange their labor for compensation and both have been increasingly exploited by the ruling class in the last 30 years. Both classes are currently experiencing some relative suffering, but the suffering has been neither equal nor equally noticed.
The working classes had their jobs shipped overseas in the dead of night from the 1980s-2000s. No one really noticed that an economic genocide was being perpetrated on the working class until it was too late. Those people have been suffering for a generation. The upper middle class suffered some recent setbacks when the 2007 financial crisis precipitated a downturn in the global economy. The owners of successful local businesses have seen their fortunes shrink and skilled professionals have seen their retirements take a hit. It was only once this creeping crisis started affecting the upper middle class that it became actual news. There was no “crisis” when the working class was being removed from the middle class over the course of 30 years. Once people with money started to take hits, the economic situation demanded bi-partisan action.
Of course the action that was taken in the face of the crisis also reflected the class interests that the government represented. Financial institutions that held the upper middle and ruling class’s money were bailed out while working class homeowners simply lost everything. Regulatory efforts were modestly structured to allow Wall Street to continue, minus some of the previously risky practices that caused the problem. However, the core exploitation of the working class has continued. Job prospects for the working class haven’t seen much of a bounce back and wages are as insufficient as they have ever been.
The entire economic recovery was designed to return the lives of the top 10% back to homeostasis. The theory being that those people would create jobs for the rest of the country. The resulting recovery has been unsurprisingly anemic. Guess it was too much trouble for the two political parties to repair the fortunes of the working class so that those people could go back to spending money and driving the economy. That would have been “too ambitious,” as everything that helps the bulk of the American people always tends to be.
Bernie is the first major candidate in decades to step up and declare that the majority of the American people should have their needs treated as the primary concern of government. He espouses a completely different policy paradigm from the one accepted by the political establishments of both the Democratic and Republican parties. His entire agenda focuses on what the American people need rather than what the ruling classes deem “politically possible.” He represents an attempt to create a political party that unapologetically serves the needs of the working class. It is tremendously telling that such an effort finds itself so starkly at odds with the mainstream leadership of the Democratic Party.
When Hillary Clinton supporters espouse the virtues of pragmatic incrementalism, Bernie supporters need to remember that that entire viewpoint neglects their needs. That is the view of people who live in relative financial security, for whom economic hardship is not only minor, but can be traced back to relatively recent Republican irresponsibility. These people have seen incrementalism respond to their needs. Government has largely repaired their lives in the wake of the financial crisis. The larger economic crises of de-industrialization and the destruction of the unions are things that are simply not happening in their world. They are unhappy with Congress’s current displays if incompetence, but the status quo hasn’t been so bad for them and their kids over the last 30 years. These people can afford to accept incremental change — masquerading as “responsible moderate governance” — that keeps the system on an even keel. They have no visceral relationship to the idea that our current government doesn’t work for most people, or the need for revolutionary and fundamental change.
The Message to Hillary Supporters:
The discussion over whether Bernie supporters should be “Bernie or Bust,” “Never Hillary,” or “Anyone but Trump” is one that Bernie supporters need to have amongst themselves. You put those people in a horrible position by squashing their reinvigorated enthusiasm for the political process with cynicism, pessimism, and a healthy dose of condescension. You then gloated in their faces, as if your ill-gotten electoral victory actually meant that you won the intellectual argument (it didn’t).
All of this was in service to a candidate from the Democratic establishment, whose class interests not only run contrary to Bernie supporters’ interests, but many of yours as well. You supported the “fake ally of the working class” that has perpetrated the disenfranchisement of progressive voters over the last 30 years (in tandem with the all-out legislative assault on their interests by Republicans). You don’t get to tell these people to “suck it up” and vote for your candidate. That’s a plea for them to vote against their own interests, something they wouldn’t have to consider doing if you had stood with them in the primaries in the way that you are now asking them to stand with you. Don’t expect solidarity when you were unwilling to show any.
If your interests do not run contrary to Bernie supporters, then you were conned by the Democrats into undermining your own interests as well. Either way, Bernie supporters are under no obligation to join you. You don’t get to berate them into doing what you want. You are part of their problem, not a solution. Be respectful of that.
A Personal Anecdote
For me, this became personally relevant recently when someone I know, who supported Hillary in the primary, wrote an open letter to “Bernie or Bust” people about how awful a Trump presidency would be for him. He’s gay and recently married his partner. He is also privileged and well-connected in politics. He made an impassioned plea for people to understand that Trump would represent a rollback of hard-earned rights that members of the LGBT community have only recently won. His words were moving, but he didn’t seem to realize how bad of a messenger he was.
It would be one thing if he had been a Bernie supporter asking other Bernie supporters to be prudent with their votes. When a plea like that comes from a privileged Hillary supporter, it is nothing more than a touchingly personalized version of the same fear mongering that has been used to convince a generation of working class people — long abandoned by the Democrats — to “hold their noses” and vote for the “lesser of two evils” once again. It’s all just threatening a dire alternative to induce people to vote against their own interests.
At a certain level, this tactic is a form of terrorism.
The irony of his plea is that Bernie supporters represent a much larger downtrodden group of their own: working-class members of the Democratic Party who have essentially been dispossessed of an electoral voice by the party’s shifting interests over the last three decades. Bernie’s candidacy was an attempt to shift the Democratic Party back to its roots of truly standing for the working class. This friend of mine had a chance to show solidarity with those voters by supporting a candidate who was every bit as progressive on social issues as Hillary, but who also had a strong agenda for empowering the working class. Instead, he chose to support the next corporate shill churned out for mass consumption by Democratic leadership.
The really frustrating part of all of this is that he wouldn’t even do right by the working class when there was no cost him personally. If Bernie had won, this guy would have gotten a candidate who supported all of the socially progressive policies he wanted, but a Hillary win means that those working class Democrats won’t be getting a candidate who supports their progressive economic policy needs. He actively helped the mainstream of the Democratic Party thwart the interests of progressive working class voters. Then he turned around and used an exploitative personal plea to urge people that he wouldn’t stand with to put personal differences aside and stand with him. It takes powerful blinders to not see the hypocrisy there.
The people who constitute the Democrats’ upper middle class base don’t get it. They never will. Their struggle is not the working class’s struggle. Their issues can be solved by a game of inches. The working class needs to move miles. The problem in this election is that they were able to convince so many from the working class that doing what is best for them is what is best for everyone in the country. They have that in common with Republican leadership. It’s a con-job on par with trickle-down economics. Touché, upper middle class. Touché.
That said, Bernie is just the beginning of a massive sea change. Much like Republicans, the Democratic leadership’s days of getting away with this are preciously numbered.