October 16, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Warren Isn’t the Candidate of the 1%
And neither is the GOP a workers party.
The reason the Democratic debates have had so little affect on what primary voters think of the candidates running for the party’s nomination is simple: Donald Trump. An authoritarian incumbent has been a stabilizing force in what might have been a more volatile landscape without his presence. The stakes are sky high, especially for Democrats of color, and as a result, people are making conservative preliminary choices, erring on the side of trust (mostly in Joe Biden) and less on the side of hope.
To my mind, this explains why there really has not been winners or losers in the Democratic debates, and also why the top three or four candidates have been and will continue to be the top three or four candidates. The only exception to an otherwise static state of play, of course, has been Elizabeth Warren. While everyone else is either struggling for attention or trying to maintain the attention they already have, the Massachusetts senator is steadily rising. That should tell us a lot about her strengths, and also why she is the subject of grotesque slander from the ideological extremes.
This isn’t brain surgery. This is classic class politics.
In the past week, articles in The American Conservative, which is pro-Trump, and in Jacobin, which is pro-Bernie Sanders, have tried to argue that Warren is actually the candidate of the 1 percent or that the Republicans are now a workers party. These arguments make sense, I suppose, if you swallow news framing by the mainstream press, but these arguments make no sense at all if you have a working knowledge of political reality. In other words, if you are not motivated to argue obvious absurdities.
Yes, the president won three states in the Midwest thanks for the racist resentments of the “working class.” But it depends on what you mean by “working class.” If you define class by education, then yes: Trump won the (white) working class. If you define it by income, well, things look a bit different. Turns out the “working class” voters who supported the president last time around were making a nice middle-class income or better despite not having gone to college. Voters earning less than $50,000 a year, which is a pretty good class threshold, didn’t. They voted for his Democratic rival.
It also turns out that fault line has defined American class politics for ages. The poor, the working poor and the real working class, if they vote, tend to choose every four years the Democratic candidate. This isn’t brain surgery. This is classic class politics, and it’s simpler than elites would have you believe it is. The trick is paying more attention to political reality and less attention to all the well-reasoned absurdities.
There are plenty of people with plenty of reasons to make what’s simple appear more complex than it is.
Class attitudes are simpler too. We’re often told that Americans don’t believe a class system exists in this country. We’re often told that Americans don’t like welfare because we don’t like the idea of individuals getting something without first having worked for it. We’re often told that Americans don’t resent the rich for their wealth and power, because we believe we may one day be rich, too. Total bosh, all of it.
Fact is, a majority of Americans is very much conscious of their place in the class hierarchy. A majority resents the rich. A majority has sympathy for the poor. A majority even wants the government to do more the underprivileged, not less. All of this is argued in Spencer Piston’s 2018 book, Class Attitudes in America. He wrote:
These three sources of evidence—Americans’ own words, their responses to original survey questions, and their behavior in an experimental setting—all lead to an unambiguous conclusion. Sympathy for the poor and resentment toward the rich are widespread, and under predictable conditions these attitudes powerfully influence the political preferences of the American public.
I’ll have more to say about Piston’s book later. For now, it’s a powerful indictment of the well-reasoned absurdities I’m talking about. There are plenty of people with plenty of reasons to make what’s simple appear more complex than it is. Most Americans greatly sympathize with the poor and they deeply resent the rich, and that would be much clearer if the political right stopped exploiting bigotry, and if the political left (well, Bernie Sanders’ devotees, anyway) stopped nattering about “socialism.”
Elizabeth Warren gets it, I think. She understands how class politics actually works in this country. She keeps it clear. She keeps it simple. That’s why she’s under attack.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.