The Abandoned Working Class

Despite Biden’s victory, and Republican declaration as a new working-class party, both parties represent the interest of capital. In turn, lower-income voters continue to distrust both parties and remain significantly disengaged from the political process.

The supposedly objective media paradigm frames the economy as a unitary thing thus obstructing working-class consciousness. For example, the generic exit poll asks “Who do you favor for the economy?” and ignores how unhelpful, exploitative, the trickle-down capitalist economy has been for wage-earning people. The capitalist economy, more so in the US than Europe, fundamentally creates wealth for capital while allowing workers just to survive. Ultimately, framing this mechanism as a single economic entity ignores how the working class benefits even when the economy grows. 

Within this misleading unitary construct, exit polls show that the economy is the number 1 issue for 36% of voters, up to 86% of those who voted for Trump. The Democrats talk about how the Keynesian stimulus will “help the economy” but they fail to specifically address how they will raise wages for working people. Because of decades of deregulation and declining unionization Democratic ideas on regulation come across as anti-job.  At the same time, the party has failed to focus on actually raising wages for the lowest earners. Biden and his team failed to call out the massive benefits to the capital class conferred by Trump’s economy–especially during COVID. Moreover, his Wall Street ties promise no changes to any actual taxes on capital. At a bare minimum, populist rhetoric stating that corporations reaping windfalls from Covid must pay excise profit taxes and that essential workers need mandatory hazard pay would resonate. By shying away from a class conflict, Democrats have completely failed to present a distinct economic vision

Obama presided over a stock market recovery coupled with a mass, often illegal, the foreclosure crisis. Many lower-income people who voted for him lost their homes; student debt skyrocketed and wages stagnated. Obama’s crowning “achievement,” Obamacare, a failed Rube Goldberg mechanism, primarily benefited hospitals that deny care to the uninsured and insurance companies.  It didn’t make healthcare affordable, let alone universal. Trump’s abolition of the onerous fine for the individual mandate coupled with rising premiums especially in rural areas may have boosted Trump’s support in the democratic leaning part of Texas, the region in which he had the most gains. By the end of Obama’s presidency, the initial increases in the number of people with insurance had begun to reverse. Those lucky enough to have employer insurance faced premiums rising much faster than their wages. Thus, even workers with rising wages still faced real economic hardship from the growing costs of insurance. For the working class, Obamacare created hardship either by failing to provide affordable coverage for blue-collar workers or by making white-collar workers a layoff away from losing their insurance. This ongoing crisis of inadequate healthcare and weak economic perspectives contributed greatly to the opioid crisis, which surged under Obama’s presidency leading to “deaths of despair” and a drop in life expectancy.

Despite Obama’s betrayal of working-class Americans, Democrats still win more working-class,lower-income voters than Trump.  Trump won only 31% of voters below $100k and only 29% of voters who actually prioritized the economy voted for Trump. Much like in 2016 and even with increased turnout across the board, lower-income voters are much more likely to sit out the election than wealthier ones. Part of Trump’s continuing popularity with lower-educated whites stems from his politically astute pressure on the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low, which has boosted employment. Also, while his fiscal policy ignored actual needs, he increased budget deficits thus providing an actual stimulus while Obama cut them as a part of his sequester compromise. Trump’s tax cuts were a giveaway to corporations and the capital class, but he did lower tax rates for lower-income people. As corporations and high net worth individuals, like Trump himself, often avoid paying taxes there was a marginal benefit to these programs. Furthermore, increasing general government expenditures provided further economic stimulus boosting employment and contributing to overall wage growth. Neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration proposed any programs anything approaching aleftist economic policy. It’s clear that austerity and the Fed are tools of the capital class designed to suppress wages.  Nonetheless there exist levers from the federal to the municipal level to push for higher wages that would benefit the working class and provide a unifying political narrative.

Biden, beholden to the capital class, has preached unity while offering few concrete plans to fight for rising wages. Instead, Democrats, ever the capitalist super-ego to the Republicans id, have already murmured about the budget deficit. The supposedly “dovish” Treasury Secretary pick, Yellen, played a key role in crippling the economy under Obama by prematurely raising interest rates and has repeatedly fretted over the budget deficit in the past. Since leaving the Federal Reserve, she has taken millions in speaking fees from the finance sector that explicitly wants to keep wages as low as possible. If by 2022 employment reaches pre-COVID levels and wages do increase, the donor class will likely demand a new Fed Chair who will put capital gains ahead of employment just as Yellen did in 2016 plus another round of budget cuts. Austerity and Monetary tightening are already concerns within the right-wing of the Democratic Party. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers called the $2,000 checks dangerous. 

The working class must continue to demand healthcare as a right and to fight for rising real wages. The economy is so unequal that an increase in benefits and wages to the bottom 50% of earners would barely make a dent on national numbers like the GDP and more of the economy going towards workers through wage increases could easily lead to a stock sell-off. The left needs to make clear that the stock market is often a scoreboard, showing the wins of the capital class, not promises of future economic security for all of us.