U.S. election exposes working class alienation and division
A hard hat adorned with Donald Trump decals. | Smithsonian National Museum of American History

In words and allegedly in deeds, Donald Trump abused women. Yet 53 percent of white women somehow saw fit to vote for him on November 8. Black and Latino voters, though they still overwhelmingly backed Clinton, also voted for Trump in greater numbers than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012. What explains the gains Trump was able to make with these constituencies?

Class may have something to do with it. Trump certainly spent a lot of time presenting himself as the candidate who would defend workers. Isn’t it at least possible that many women found themselves balancing ties to their social class with concerns over misogyny? Perhaps the African Americans and Latinos who decided to give Trump a hearing were also responding, at least as they saw it, as workers. Perception of class loyalty just might have been reason enough, or one more reason, to reject Clinton.

Amid the flood of explanations for the Democratic Party’s defeat on November 8, the probability looms that the Democrats are no longer answerable to working people. Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times and blaming so-called “identity liberalism,” claims that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has…prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” But working people aren’t part of Lilla’s discussion, and he is prey to wishful thinking.

Hilary Clinton’s campaign, he suggests, offered “rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” But, “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.” “National politics,” says Lilla, “is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality.” He values “Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”

Other election commentary identified working-class realities that are at odds with Lilla’s idealized unity. As Vicente Navarro, an academic from the United States specializing in public health issues and now writing from Barcelona, has raised the issue of how race and class interplay. He was an advisor for Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns.

Navarro recalls Jackson’s response in 1988 to questions about how he’d gain a white steelworker’s vote. He answered, “By making him aware he has more in common with the black steelworkers by being a worker, than with the boss by being white.”

Referring to the U.S. elections, Navarro adds that, “The Democratic Party…emphasized, instead of class-based politics, a politics directed at integrating minorities and women into the political system in order to combat discrimination.”

“But the main beneficiaries,” he adds “were high-income, middle class persons. There was generally no improvement of the social and economic welfare of most minority people and women, who belonged to the working class… Identity politics without attention to class (supposedly disappeared) didn’t alter the power of the dominant class in the country.”

Crucially, “the disappearance of social class as a socio-political category on the part of the Democratic Party (as also occurred with social democracy) entailed the abandonment of redistributive politics.”

A similar critique of the Democratic Party’s recent performance comes from Puerto Rico. Carlos Borrero of the island’s Communist Party finds a “high grade of political disorientation” in the United States. He condemns “the incessant campaign to promote identity politics,” adding that, “the Democratic Party coalition has been based on the black population, on women, white ‘liberals,’ and Latinos, [and] the Republicans depend on support from the so-called ‘white working class’ mobilized under the banner of national chauvinism.”

The Democrats have promoted a “pernicious and divisive consciousness.” They’ve “weakened the capacity of the working masses to struggle together;” there’s no “ideological center capable of guiding massive discontent.”

Borrero is writing from a country where a reckoning between social classes may be imminent. Detailing the specifics of working-class oppression and colonial dependency there may help explain why the exclusive practice of identity politics in that situation, and others, won’t cut it.

One observer thinks Puerto Rico is having “its great depression, the most severe in 100 years.” The U.S. government in 1996 ended manufacturers’ exemption from paying taxes on earnings from factories on the island. Factories departed and jobs disappeared, almost 300,000 since 2007. Now only 40.7 percent of working-age Puerto Ricans are employed or are looking for a job. Some 45 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, including 58 percent of the children. In 2014, “84,000 people left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland, a 38 percent increase from 2010.”

Puerto Rico’s government cannot pay debt obligations amounting to $73 billion, yet under U.S. law it may not file for bankruptcy. Since 2007, 70,000 public service jobs are gone. Social services have shrunk. Now a U.S. financial control board controls the island’s finances, budgetary processes, and ultimately political decision-making. On November 8, 42 percent of eligible Puerto Ricans didn’t vote as opposed to 22 percent in 2012 and 21 percent in 2008. The island colony is home to 15 U.S. military bases.

If identity politics finds no home in Puerto Rico, what about the United States? Navarro and Borrero argue that the Democratic Party’s resort to identity politics left many working people to their own devices. Many white workers discovered Donald Trump this year, a candidate who did recognize them as alienated and with needs, although of course plenty of minority workers remained true to Clinton.

Social crisis in the United States is not yet as dire as in Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party’s recent experience, along with messages from Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Movement, show that regular U.S politics contain a heavy dose of confrontation based on class differences. To act on that reality now would seem to be a much-delayed first step toward forestalling a U.S. version of the social and political disaster that is Puerto Rico.

Labor-oriented political parties elsewhere in the world took on such a preventative role. As Carlos Borrero argued, “The necessity [exists] to create new instruments of struggle and present new ways of doing politics for the working class.”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.