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The Abandoned Working Class

By Kevin Martin

True political representation is critical for the longevity of the United States and the wellbeing of its citizens. It enables us to vote for those who will have our best interests at heart, those who are empathetic to our day-to-day struggles or worries. But for the American working class (encompassing individuals who work for hourly wages and do not possess a college degree), the ballot in the voting booth is, more often than not, unrepresentative. This disconnect is due to the shifting political goals and priorities of the two major political parties in this country, goals and priorities that fail to align with those of the working class.

Traditionally, the Republican Party has been seen as the party of capital, the Wall Street party, whereas the Democratic Party was typically seen as the worker’s party. That image was reality until the Democrats transformed their political strategy in the 1990s and abandoned the working class in exchange for the professional class, leaving those of the former without a well-defined political home. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement by Bill Clinton was a huge policy shift away from workers because the agreement had a generally negative effect on working class jobs. The deal was more likely to “steal” the jobs of laborers than those of lawyers. Regulated immigration was also an important issue for the working class in this country, and the Democratic Party took on the political goal of expanding immigration. Democrats appeared to be creating additional competition amongst workers in America, consequently reducing available jobs and lowering wages. Democrats further failed to keep workers in their tent due to their abandonment of private-sector unions. This position was most evident in 1993 when the Democrats refused to support a striker’s movement. These strikes ultimately failed, and the private-sector unions have never been as powerful or important since. Lastly, the Democrats began to modify their rhetoric into a more progressive tone, largely to garner more support from the professional class. But the move had the effect of estranging workers, who largely tend to be either conservative or moderate.

A grocery store employee works amid the coronavirus epidemic. (Source: Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The result of these changes in the political dynamic ought to have caused the Republican Party to transform itself into a fundamentally worker-friendly party. However, this expectation failed to materialize in any fundamental way. The rise of Donald Trump forced the Republican Party to struggle over the issue of transforming or maintaining the status quo in relation to workers. Although deeply polarizing and immensely wealthy, Trump has been capable of talking about the issues that face the working class. He connects to workers by talking about unfair trade deals, illegal immigration, and the disintegration of manufacturing in the United States. While his message is significantly pro-working class, the vast majority of his support amongst workers comes from the white working class; and this racial divide illustrates an important failure of not only Trump, but of the entire GOP. It shows that the Republican Party itself has failed to curate a coherent strategy to propose and secure policies that are appealing to all workers.

The GOP, when it comes to economic policy, is torn between two camps: those who support the longstanding corporate tendencies of the party—this is the “establishment”—and the fledgling populist wing that believes in more worker-focused economic policies. This internal conflict plays out through the policy the Republicans pass or promulgate. The corporate tax cuts of 2017 were passed by the Republicans, and these were definitely not worker focused. But a few weeks ago, the White House ordered an eviction moratorium until the end of the year; this action is very much pro-worker. Neither camp in the party has a significant advantage, which has led to the inability to curate a clear political message.

Workers make up a disproportionate segment of the people who do not vote. In my opinion, the low turnout rate in this country—which is around fifty percent in midterm elections and sixty percent in presidential elections, according to the Census Bureau—is due to the failure of our political parties to give the working class a fair choice. We have two parties that are more focused on getting next election’s campaign funds covered by their corporate donors than actually governing in a way that would be beneficial to American workers. That is how, in the midst of a pandemic, both of these parties can rail against the other for not competently handling the issues at hand, while completely abandoning everyday Americans through inaction. These political institutions can afford to forgo fighting for the votes of the working class because this segment of the American population does not vote as often, and those who do vote are racially split between the two parties. This status quo cannot and should not stand the test of time. Improper representation causes resentment and distrust in our political institutions, a serious issue that this country is already struggling with today. My hope is that the parties will not continue to ignore the working class in this country. It is not enough for politicians to support workers with words; they need to propose policies that can help them. But until that day comes, the American working class will have no genuine political party to turn to. Instead, they have two parties that pretend to care, if even that.

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