Jacobin Magazine bills itself as a left-wing site with a socialist slant, so you can’t write off this piece, by Adam Fisher, as expressing the biases of a right-wing writer. I can’t find much about an “Adam Fisher” on the Internet, but that’s not surprising given his subject: his upbringing in a small and impoverished town in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. His piece, “The blind spots of liberalism“, grew out of his hardscrabble upbringing, going to school in a trailer and coming home to a table devoid of food. The town, once engaged in mining and lumbering, was left behind when those industries petered out. In his town, people worried about one thing: where their next paycheck was coming from, or, if they were getting one, how long it would last.
Fisher uses this town as an emblem of the kind of people who voted for Trump, people who, he says, weren’t racists or sexists, but living in fear and poverty. A snippet (my emphasis):
Mine was the kind of town that a classless identity politics forgets. The kind of town where being male or white or Christian wasn’t synonymous with having decent housing, proper medical care, or a steady job.
Politicians are remarkably adept at pitting the economically disenfranchised against the racially or sexually marginalized.
Fear of hitting a glass ceiling is set against the fear of having one’s wages stolen. Fear of never being able to love the way one wants to love is set against the fear of losing one’s job and being out on the street.
At times, liberal forms of identity politics can fall into this trap. The reactionary that blames the plight of workers on the breakdown of traditional marriage and porous borders has more in common with the liberal pundit who blames racism and homophobia on the ignorance of white workers than either would like to admit.
But it was not white working-class people who drafted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. It was not struggling rural workers who sold this bill to the public by labeling young black men “super predators.”
The people in my small town did not own the private prisons that paid inmates $0.23 to 1.15 an hour, nor did they own the companies (like Whole Foods) that exploited prison labor. They were, however, hurt by the downward pressure that such labor schemes placed on workers’ wages.
Inevitably, the blind spots of classless identity politics benefit elites.
In one rarified area, the wage gap has apparently vanished: chief executive officers of America’s richest companies. But this means very little to, say, women in traditionally feminized occupations like nursing and home health care work. A $15 minimum wage would be a more significant win for feminism than gender parity for CEOs.
Similarly, in my childhood town, glass ceilings and the shattering of them didn’t improve the lives of those just trying to pick themselves up off the floor.” The Yahoo CEO’s gender, or the US president’s race, had very little impact on the average citizen’s life. It wasn’t of much consequence to them if a prominent CNN anchor was gay, or if a black woman was a media mogul, or if a past Olympian had gender reassignment surgery.
However, it did matter if their standard of living was simultaneously decreasing and the precarity of their job was endangering their children’s future.
I had no idea that Whole Foods employed prison labor to make some of its products, but the link seems kosher, though the practice stopped in April of this year. But really, the sanctimonious Whole Foods?
In the rest of the article, Fisher doesn’t so much oppose identity politics as to say that class should be added as one “identity”. Indeed, if we’re going to consider those who are marginalized, then there’s a very good case that this should include the working class as a whole, regardless of pigmentation. As determinists, we know that such folks didn’t choose to be poor: the combination of their genes and environment made them wind up that way. Nor does this determinism mean they’re beyond help, because my own determined impulses are prompting me to convince you of Fisher’s thesis.
“Diversity” is now a euphemism for two things only: increasing the variance within a group in skin pigmentation and gender. And certainly everyone should, from birth, have the opportunity to succeed regardless of ethnicity or gender, though we have to make sure that all those opportunities are equal from the outset.
But how about the poor? Should they be preferentially recruited as college students, professors, or employees in general? Well, financial need is irrelevant for acceptance in some “need-blind” colleges, but those white students like Fisher, who went to a lousy school in a dirt-poor town, are disadvantaged from the beginning. Should we have affirmative action for poor white people who, like many blacks, are disadvantaged in this way? If not, why not? Isn’t that also a kind of diversity we need? After all, the rich and poor are different from you and me.
Well, regardless of considerations about affirmative action, which is not Fisher’s focus, we need to realize that class may be just as important as race or gender in politics. We know this because it was class divides among Americans that led to the election of Donald Trump. Yes, you can say that those people were ignorant, not knowing where their real interests lay (and, given Trump’s cabinet, it seems likely they’ll eventually realize that), but they weren’t racist or sexist. They ignored the odious side of Trump (actually, the odious 99.5%), because for them Hillary Clinton symbolized someone who, while taking loads of dosh from Wall Street, would ignore their plight.
For those who write these people off as misogynist Nazis, here’s how Fisher finishes his piece:
Since I lived there, the population of my childhood town has nearly doubled, fueled in part by telecommuting and cash migrating from Silicon Valley. Median income has risen to $47,000, but the median home price fell 43 percent between 2003 and 2013. The school has moved to more appropriate permanent buildings.
But it’s hard to blame sexism or racism for Clinton’s loss.
On Election Day, the people of Placer County also voted for Kamala Harris, a black woman, to be their US senator. Her vote share? 63 percent. And her vote tally? 16,178 more than Clinton’s.
Somehow, as progressives (and mostly Democrats), we need to stop demonizing the working classes and find a platform that offers them substantive hope. And it’s not just to help elect someone like Clinton, either. It’s simply the right thing to do.